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Vol. 70, No. 4, 2007
Issue release date: September 2007
Brain Behav Evol 2007;70:218–226

Individual Variation in Coping with Stress: A Multidimensional Approach of Ultimate and Proximate Mechanisms

Koolhaas J.M. · de Boer S.F. · Buwalda B. · van Reenen K.
Department of Behavioral Physiology, University Groningen, Haren, The Netherlands

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Ecological studies on feral populations of mice, fish and birds elucidate the functional significance of phenotypes that differ individually in their behavioral and neuroendocrine response to environmental challenge. Within a species, the capacity to cope with environmental challenges largely determines individual survival in the natural habitat. Recent studies indicate that individual variation within a species may buffer the species for strong fluctuations in the natural habitat. A conceptual framework will be presented that is based on the view that individual variation in aggressive behavior can be considered more generally as a variation in actively coping with environmental challenges. Highly aggressive individuals adopt a proactive coping style whereas low levels of aggression indicate a more passive or reactive style of coping. Coping styles have now been identified in a range of species and can be considered as trait characteristics that are stable over time and across situations. The dimension of coping style seems to be independent of an emotionality dimension. Hence, in the analysis of the proximate mechanisms of stress and adaptation, one has to consider the possibility that the mechanisms which determine the type of stress response might be independent from those underlying the magnitude of the response. The two coping styles differ in a number of important neurobiological and neuroendocrine systems. For example, proactive males differ significantly from reactive males in the homeostatic control of serotonergic activity resulting in completely opposite dose response relationships of various serotonergic drugs. The results so far show that proactive coping is characterized by a strong inhibitory control of the 5-HT neuron via its somatodendritic 5-HT1A autoreceptor. It is hypothesized that the regulation of serotonin release is causally related to coping style rather than emotionality. Understanding the functional individual variation as it occurs in nature and the underlying neurobiology and neuroendocrinology is fundamental in understanding individual vulnerability to stress related disease.

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