Animal models of social stress represent a useful experimental tool to investigate the relationship between psychological stress, autonomic neural activity and cardiovascular disease. This paper summarizes the results obtained in a series of experiments performed on rats and aimed at verifying whether social challenges produce specific modifications in the autonomic neural control of heart rate and whether these changes can be detrimental for cardiac electrical stability. Short-term electrocardiographic recordings were performed via radiotelemetry and the autonomic input to the heart evaluated by means of time-domain heart rate variability measures. Compared to other stress contexts, a social defeat experience produces a strong shift of autonomic balance toward sympathetic dominance, poorly antagonized by vagal rebound, and associated with the occurrence of cardiac tachyarrhythmias. These effects were particularly severe when a wild-type strain of rats was studied. The data also suggest that the cardiac autonomic responses produced by different types of social contexts (dominant-subordinate interaction, dominant-dominant confrontation, social defeat) are related to different degrees of emotional activation, which in turn are likely modulated by the social rank of the experimental animal and the opponent, the prior experience with the stressor, and the level of controllability over the stimulus.
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