Changes in social status can alter the immune system, according to a new study of monkeys that researchers say has significant implications for how low socioeconomic status affects human health.
Researchers who studied rhesus macaques at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center said shifts in social standing prompted genetic changes in their immune systems leaving them more vulnerable to infection.
Scientists said the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer clues to how changes in socioeconomic status influence human health in both positive and negative ways.
"There's a concerning side to this kind of research, in that an individual's social environment probably partially determines health status," said lead researcher Jenny Tung. "But there's also a hopeful side. For the [monkeys] that changed ranks, their gene status changed with them."
For the study, Tung and her colleagues studied 10 groups of female macaques as they manipulated the monkeys’ social ranks. They also scanned the macaques’ genes and examined their immune cells.
They found the genetic activity that changed the most depending on social rank were factors that control cellular inflammation, which previous studies have tied to increases in stress hormones as well as a range of health conditions.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.