Nav: Home

Immune system influenced by social status, but access to resources not to blame

November 28, 2016

Social status is one of the most important factors in predicting the risk of disease and mortality in humans and other social mammals. A new study by the University of Montreal, Duke University (USA), and Emory University (USA) published in Science reveals that low social status alone can alter immune regulation, even in the absence of variation in access to resources, health care, and at-risk behaviours for health.

"In short, two individuals with access to the same dietary resources and the same health care and exhibiting the same behaviours have different immune responses to infection depending on whether they have a high or low social status," said Luis Barreiro, Professor in the Department of pediatrics at the University of Montreal's Faculty of Medicine and researcher at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center.

Macaques, close relatives of humans

To demonstrate the biological basis of the influence of social status on the immune system, the researchers combined genomics with manipulation of the social status of 45 female macaques, a species close to humans and having a linear and stable social hierarchy.

"We used macaques because it is impossible to conduct this experiment on humans for obvious ethical reasons," explained Professor Barreiro, who co-led the study with Professor Jenny Tung. "For the moment, we have only used females, but we hope to reproduce the study with males in the near future."

The researchers formed nine groups of females who lived together for one year. They then formed new groups to upset the dominance ranks among the females and study the effect of the changes on their immune systems. The researchers ensured that all the animals had access to as much food as needed, and veterinarians regularly checked that they were not sick or injured, to control for these variables.

Inflammatory vs. antiviral immune responses

In analyzing the results, the researchers discovered that the cells of macaques with low social status had a stronger pro-inflammatory response to infection compared to the cells of individuals with high social status. A pro-inflammatory response occurs when the immune system causes inflammation (e.g., redness, heat, swelling) to neutralize and eliminate bacterial or viral infections. Strong tissue or organ inflammation can save the life of the infected individual; however, disproportionate inflammation can damage the organs and leave after-affects. This may partly explain why people with low social status have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases. For their part, macaques with high social status showed a stronger antiviral immune response compared to those with low social status.

Reversible immune differences

In addition, the researchers observed that these differences in immune responses were reversible. Indeed, when a low social status macaque achieved high social status, its immune system adopted the immune response associated with high social status.

What to do with the results?

Should this discovery encourage our societies to level out differences in social status as much as possible? Professor Barreiro does not believe so: "The history of mankind has shown us that there will always be inequalities in human society. In my opinion, the thing to do is to understand as best as possible how our immune system works and what fringes of the population are more at risk of suffering from a certain disease, and to find solutions in this regard," he concluded.
About the study

N. Snyder-Mackler, J. Sanz, J. N. Kohn, J. F. Brinkworth, S. Morrow, A.O. Shaver, J.-C. Grenier, R. Pique-Regi, Z. P. Johnson, M. E. Wilson, L. B. Barreiro, and J. Tung, "Social status alters immune regulation and response to infection in macaques", Science, November 25, 2016.

Funding for the study

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (USA), the National Science Foundation (USA), the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Fonds de recherche du Québec.

University of Montreal

Related Immune System Articles:

Memory training for the immune system
The immune system will memorize the pathogen after an infection and can therefore react promptly after reinfection with the same pathogen.
Immune system may have another job -- combatting depression
An inflammatory autoimmune response within the central nervous system similar to one linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) has also been found in the spinal fluid of healthy people, according to a new Yale-led study comparing immune system cells in the spinal fluid of MS patients and healthy subjects.
COVID-19: Immune system derails
Contrary to what has been generally assumed so far, a severe course of COVID-19 does not solely result in a strong immune reaction - rather, the immune response is caught in a continuous loop of activation and inhibition.
Immune cell steroids help tumours suppress the immune system, offering new drug targets
Tumours found to evade the immune system by telling immune cells to produce immunosuppressive steroids.
Immune system -- Knocked off balance
Instead of protecting us, the immune system can sometimes go awry, as in the case of autoimmune diseases and allergies.
Too much salt weakens the immune system
A high-salt diet is not only bad for one's blood pressure, but also for the immune system.
Parkinson's and the immune system
Mutations in the Parkin gene are a common cause of hereditary forms of Parkinson's disease.
How an immune system regulator shifts the balance of immune cells
Researchers have provided new insight on the role of cyclic AMP (cAMP) in regulating the immune response.
Immune system upgrade
Theoretically, our immune system could detect and kill cancer cells.
Using the immune system as a defence against cancer
Research published today in the British Journal of Cancer has found that a naturally occurring molecule and a component of the immune system that can successfully target and kill cancer cells, can also encourage immunity against cancer resurgence.
More Immune System News and Immune System Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.