Introduction: Food insecurity is a major global contributor to developmental origins of adult disease. The allostatic load of maternal food uncertainty from variable foraging demand (VFD) activates corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) without eliciting hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activation measured on a group level. Individual homeostatic adaptations of the HPA axis may subserve second-order homeostasis, a process we provisionally term “social allostasis.” We postulate that maternal food insecurity induces a “superorganism” state through coordination of individual HPA axis response.
Methods: Twenty-four socially-housed bonnet macaque maternal-infant dyads were exposed to 16 weeks of alternating two-week epochs of low or high foraging demand shown to compromise normative maternal-infant rearing. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) CRF concentrations and plasma cortisol were measured pre- and post-VFD. Dyadic distance was measured, and blinded observers performed pre-VFD social ranking assessments.
Results: Despite marked individual cortisol responses (mean change = 20%) there was an absence of maternal HPA axis group mean response to VFD (0%). Whereas individual CSF CRF concentrations change = 56%, group mean did increase 25% (p = 0.002). Our "dyadic vulnerability" index (low infant weight, low maternal weight, subordinate maternal social status and reduced dyadic distance) predicted maternal cortisol decreases (p < 0.0001) whereas relatively “advantaged” dyads exhibited maternal cortisol increases in response to VFD exposure.
Comment: In response to a chronic stressor, relative dyadic vulnerability plays a significant role in determining the directionality and magnitude of individual maternal HPA axis responses in the service of maintaining a “superorganism” version of HPA axis homeostasis, provisionally termed “social allostasis.”