Biomarkers for classification and class prediction of stress in a murine model of chronic subordination stress

Selye defined stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand and thus an inherent element of all diseases. He reported that rats show adrenal hypertrophy, thymicolymphatic atrophy, and gastrointestinal ulceration, referred to as the stress triad, upon repeated exposure to nocuous agents. However, Selye’s stress triad as well as its extended version including reduced body weight gain, increased plasma glucocorticoid (GC) concentrations, and GC resistance of target cells do not represent reliable discriminatory biomarkers for chronic stress. To address this, we collected multivariate biological data from male mice exposed either to the preclinically validated chronic subordinate colony housing (CSC) paradigm or to single-housed control (SHC) condition. We then used principal component analysis (PCA), top scoring pairs (tsp) and support vector machines (SVM) analyses to identify markers that discriminate between chronically stressed and non-stressed mice. PCA segregated stressed and non-stressed mice, with high loading for some of Selye’s stress triad parameters. The tsp analysis, a simple and highly interpretable statistical approach, identified left adrenal weight and relative thymus weight as the pair with the highest discrimination score and prediction accuracy validated by a blinded dataset (92% p-value < 0.0001; SVM model = 83% accuracy and p-value < 0.0001). This finding clearly shows that simultaneous consideration of these two parameters can be used as a reliable biomarker of chronic stress status. Furthermore, our analysis highlights that the tsp approach is a very powerful method whose application extends beyond what has previously been reported.