How do duration, frequency, and intensity of exogenous CORT elevation affect immune outcomes of stress?


Stress is typically characterized as "acute" (lasting from minutes to hours) or "chronic" (lasting from days to months). These terms are of limited use as they are inconsistently used and only encompass one aspect of the stressor (duration). Short and long duration stress are generally thought to produce specific outcomes (e.g. acute stress enhances while chronic stress suppresses immune function). We propose that aspects of stress other than duration, such as frequency and intensity, are important in determining its outcome. We experimentally manipulated duration, frequency, and intensity of application of exogenous corticosterone, CORT, in Sceloporus undulatus (Eastern fence lizards) and measured the immune outcomes. Our findings reveal that immune outcomes of stress are not easily predicted from the average amount or duration of CORT elevation, but that intensity plays an important role. Although three of our treatments received the same average amount of CORT, they produced different effects on immune outcomes (hemagglutination). As predicted by the literature, short-duration exposure to low-dose CORT enhanced hemagglutination; however, short-duration exposure to high-dose CORT suppressed hemagglutination, suggesting that stressor intensity affects immune outcomes of stress. While both are traditionally termed "acute" based on duration, these treatments produced different immune outcomes. Long-duration ("chronic") exposure to CORT did not produce the expected suppression of hemagglutination. Frequency of CORT application did not alter immune outcomes at low intensities. These results highlight the need to quantify more than just the duration of a stressor if we are to understand and manage the ecological consequences of stress. Specifically, we should consider stressor frequency and intensity, as well as duration, for a more complete characterization and understanding of stress.

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