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Novel Model of Depression from Social Defeat Shows Restorative Power of Exercise

New Neurons Pinpointed as Central to Exercise Benefit

Science Update

laboratory mice

In a study in a mouse model that mimics the contribution of social stress to human depression, an environment that promotes exercise and exploration alleviated depressive behavior in the mice. The beneficial effect of activity depended on the growth of new neurons in the adult brain.


In the 1990s scientists established that new neurons grow in the adult as well as the immature brain. The functions of neurogenesis, or new neuronal growth, are still being explored, but it is known that stress slows this growth in the hippocampus―a brain center involved in the formation of new memories―and that antidepressant treatment promotes it.

Previous research in animal models has also demonstrated that environmental enrichment―the addition of features in an animal's cage that provide opportunities for exercise and investigation―fosters resilience to stress and can alleviate the depression-like behavior that results from uncontrollable stress. Environmental enrichment has also been shown to promote hippocampal neurogenesis in animals.

This Study

This work, by Michael Lehmann and Robert Schloesser and colleagues in NIMH's intramural research program, focused on the ability of environmental enrichment to reverse depressive behaviors caused by social defeat, a situation paralleling the social stresses that can trigger human depression. Past work in animal models has often used physical stressors such as electric shock, restraint, or forced exercise to create depressive behaviors. In addition, the scientists inserted a gene in mice that made it possible to selectively interrupt the growth of new neurons at a specific time and in a specific population of cells in the hippocampus, avoiding any spillover effects to other tissues.

More on Mouse Behavior

  • Although "dominant and aggressive" may not sound like descriptors that apply to mice, male mice in the wild live apart from other males and they are intensely aggressive if housed together. In this study, male mice were allowed to interact directly for no more than five minutes at a time and were supervised to make sure one mouse did not injure or kill the other.
  • Mice naturally cover territory in the wild; if furnished with running wheels in a cage, they will, on their own, run the equivalent of as much as 6 to 10 kilometers in one day.
  • Stress―in this case social defeat stress―has unmistakable effects on the behavior of mice. Researchers use a variety of tests to describe changes in behavioral tendencies, including observing how boldly the mice explore an unfamiliar cage; how much time they will choose to spend in a dark (safe) vs. light (risky) compartment; and the extent to which they'll indulge their taste for something pleasant like sweetened water. Mice who have been the losers of repeated social defeats are visibly cautious and subdued, even in the judgment of observers who do not know whether they were winners or losers in a conflict.

Test mice in this study were housed across a partition in the home cage of a dominant, aggressor mouse. For 5 minutes per day, the partition was removed, allowing the "intruder" and dominant mouse to interact directly. After 2 weeks, the test mice consistently behaved submissively. The test mice were then divided and placed in either a spare environment, or one enriched with running wheels, and tubes of various shapes and sizes. Some of the mice assigned to either environment were a standard laboratory strain. Others had an inserted gene targeted to a population of hippocampal cells that give rise to new neurons; in mice with this transgene, the antibiotic valganciclovir is toxic to dividing cells so neurogenesis is prevented when the drug was added to the animals' feed.

The nontransgenic test mice in the enriched environment, but not those in the more spartan cages, recovered from the submissive behavior seen after social defeat. The transgenic mice, in which neurogenesis was stopped, remained submissive, resembling the mice housed in the impoverished environment.

In tests to probe affect, or mood, the transgenic mice housed in the enriched environment also resembled mice housed in the impoverished environment in that they showed the same reduced inclination to explore, greater anxiety, and a less than normal interest in sweet solutions which mice usually prefer. Interruption of neurogenesis had no effects on the baseline health and behavior of the animals, so the lack of new neurons did not cause depression, but interfered with recovery.


This study demonstrates that psychosocial stress in mice can cause behavior resembling human depression, which environmental enrichment can ameliorate as long as neurogenesis is intact.

Key elements of this study included its use of a social stressor, more analogous to the social experiences that can contribute to human depression than the physical stressors often used in research. In addition, the use of the transgene in test animals enabled the scientists to control the interruption of neurogenesis with precision with respect to both timing and location and with no effects on neighboring cells.

According to author Michael Lehmann, "There are multiple avenues through which environmental enrichment can have a positive impact on depression. In this model we use a natural psychosocial stressor with relevance to social stress in humans, to induce depressive-like behaviors. We show that environmental enrichment can facilitate the recovery from social stress, and that adult neurogenesis is a requirement for the rehabilitating effects of enrichment."

The authors suggest that neurogenesis may be central to the ability of an animal to update emotional information upon exposure to a novel environment. With neurogenesis impaired, they may be unable to integrate information on the features of a new, changed environment. The resulting cognitive distortions may trigger symptoms of major depression.

Research suggests that one important consequence of environmental enrichment is its impact on the function of the body's stress response system. Animals in these enriched environments show positive effects on the physiology of stress resilience. In humans, successful antidepressant treatment is reflected in similar beneficial changes. Prior research has also linked neurogenesis with positive changes in the stress response system.

The authors also point out that in humans, physical exercise and positive psychosocial activity have beneficial effects on depression and stress resilience. Forms of entertainment that encourage mental activity, according to Lehmann, such as reading, video games, exercise and outdoor recreation could have longer lasting changes for many suffering from mild depressive symptoms than pharmacologic treatment, without the accompanying side effects.


Schloesser, R.J., Lehmann, M., Martinowich, K., Manji, H.K., and Herkenham, M. Environmental enrichment requires adult neurogenesis to facilitate recovery from psychosocial stress. Molecular Psychiatry 2010 Dec;15(12):1152-1163. Epub 2010 March 23.