Ascending mechanisms of stress integration: Implications for brainstem regulation of neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responses

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In response to stress, defined as a real or perceived threat to homeostasis or well-being, brain systems initiate divergent physiological and behavioral processes that mobilize energy and promote adaptation. The brainstem contains multiple nuclei that engage in autonomic control and reflexive responses to systemic stressors. However, brainstem nuclei also play an important role in neuroendocrine responses to psychogenic stressors mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Further, these nuclei integrate neuroendocrine responses with stress-related behaviors, significantly impacting mood and anxiety. The current review focuses on the prominent brainstem monosynaptic inputs to the endocrine paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus (PVN), including the periaqueductal gray, raphe nuclei, parabrachial nuclei, locus coeruleus, and nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS). The NTS is a particularly intriguing area, as the region contains multiple cell groups that provide neurochemically-distinct inputs to the PVN. Furthermore, the NTS, under regulatory control by glucocorticoid-mediated feedback, integrates affective processes with physiological status to regulate stress responding. Collectively, these brainstem circuits represent an important avenue for delineating interactions between stress and health.

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