Performance Environments: Status and Immunity

I listened to Sir Michael Marmot on Radio National yesterday.

He was talking about the social determinants of health.

In part of his conversation he discussed social status, well being and disease risk. I was intrigued by his mention of a study of macaques.

Jenny Tung and her colleagues propose that social environment is associated with gene regulatory variation in the rhesus macaque immune system.

They point out that:

  • In humans and other primates, adverse social environments often translate into lasting physiological costs.
  • Dominance rank results in a widespread, yet plastic, imprint on gene regulation, such that peripheral blood mononuclear cell gene expression data alone predict social status with 80% accuracy.
  • These results illuminate the importance of the molecular response to social conditions, particularly in the immune system, and demonstrate a key role for gene regulation in linking the social environment to individual physiology.

In the introduction to their paper they note:

Social status in nonhuman primates is encoded by dominance rank, which defines which individuals yield to other individuals during competitive encounters. In settings in which hierarchies are strongly enforced or subordinates have little social support, low dominance rank can lead to chronic stress, immune compromise, and reproductive dysregulation.

On reading the paper I started to think about the way status is established in sport performance environments. I am now wondering what arrangements should be made to induct athletes into any performance context and to monitor their long term well being, particularly those who move from team to team.

Jenny Tung and her colleagues point out that:

Our results reinforce the idea that sensitivity to the social environment is reflected in changes in gene expression in the immune system, supporting an increasingly widely recognized link between neural, endocrine, and immune function. Moreover, our results demonstrate that these associations also appear to be highly plastic. Not only were gene expression data sufficient to robustly predict relative dominance rank but gene expression profiles also tracked dominance rank shifts closely enough to allow us to predict different rank positions for the same individuals across time. These observations indicate that any causal relationship between dominance rank and gene regulation likely begins with rank, rather than vice versa.

This paper reinforces my thoughts about the support needed for the personal journey of athletes and has refocussed my consideration about the post-athlete career part of their lives.

Photo Credit

Crowds

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