Social stress has deteriorating effects on various psychiatric diseases. In animal models, exposure to socially dominant conspecifics (i.e., social defeat stress) evokes a species-specific defeat posture via unknown mechanisms. Oxytocin neurons have been shown to be activated by stressful stimuli and to have prosocial and anxiolytic actions. The roles of oxytocin during social defeat stress remain unclear. Expression of c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in oxytocin neurons and in oxytocin receptor‒expressing neurons was investigated in mice. The projection of oxytocin neurons was examined with an anterograde viral tracer, which induces selective expression of membrane-targeted palmitoylated green fluorescent protein in oxytocin neurons. Defensive behaviors during double exposure to social defeat stress in oxytocin receptor‒deficient mice were analyzed. After social defeat stress, expression of c-Fos protein was increased in oxytocin neurons of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, supraoptic nucleus, and paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus. Expression of c-Fos protein was also increased in oxytocin receptor‒expressing neurons of brain regions, including the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus and ventrolateral periaqueductal gray. Projecting fibers from paraventricular hypothalamic oxytocin neurons were found in the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus and in the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray. Oxytocin receptor‒deficient mice showed reduced defeat posture during the second social defeat stress. These findings suggest that social defeat stress activates oxytocin-oxytocin receptor systems, and the findings are consistent with the view that activation of the oxytocin receptor in brain regions, including the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus and the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray, facilitates social defeat posture.
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