The Neuroendocrinology of Stress: A Never Ending Story

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Abstract

Evolutionary success depends on our ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The neuroendocrine response to stress is an excellent example of a plastic system that responds to threats to homeostasis and alters its output to meet current and expected future demands. At the level of the hypothalamus, the corticotroph secretagogues corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) respond rapidly to an acute stressor but, following chronic stress, they adapt with a reduction of CRH but a major increase in AVP. The release of CRH and AVP activates pro-opiomelanocortin in anterior pituitary corticotroph cells and the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone into peripheral blood from where it targets receptors in the adrenal cortex to release glucocorticoid hormones. These hormones (i.e. corticosterone in the rat and cortisol in man) are released in a pulsatile ultradian pattern which defines the normal circadian rhythm. The frequency of the pulses is increased under states of chronic stress, and in rats with genetically determined hyper-responsiveness of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Interestingly, neonatal influences can also programme alterations in ultradian rhythmicity, implicating epigenetic factors in its regulation. At the level of tissue receptors, the alteration in pattern of glucocorticoid ultradian rhythm has differential effects on mineralocorticoid receptor and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) binding to DNA and offers a mechanism for tissue specific responses to altered glucocorticoid dynamics. The effects of neonatal experience are not only seen at the level of CRH and GR regulation, but also are evident in behavioural responses to stress and in the responsiveness of brain stem serotonergic pathways, as measured by tryptophan hydroxylase mRNA in the brain stem.

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