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The stress response and the hypothalamic‐pituitary‐adrenal axis: from molecule to melancholia

T.M. O'CONNOR, D.J. O'HALLORAN, F. SHANAHAN
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/93.6.323 323-333 First published online: 1 June 2000

Abstract

Organisms survive by maintaining equilibrium with their environment. The stress system is critical to this homeostasis. Glucocorticoids modulate the stress response at a molecular level by altering gene expression, transcription, and translation, among other pathways. The effect is the inhibition of the functions of inflammatory cells, predominantly mediated through inhibition of cytokines, such as IL‐1, IL‐6, and TNF‐α. The central effectors of the stress response are the corticotrophin‐releasing hormone (CRH) and locus coeruleus‐norepinephrine (LC‐NE)/sympathetic systems. The CRH system activates the stress response and is subject to modulation by cytokines, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Glucocorticoids also modulate the growth, reproductive and thyroid axes. Abnormalities of stress system activation have been shown in inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as behavioural syndromes such as melancholic depression. These disorders are comparable to those seen in rats whose CRH system is genetically abnormal. Thus, the stress response is central to resistance to inflammatory and behavioural syndromes. In this review, we describe the response to stress at molecular, cellular, neuroendocrine and behavioural levels, and discuss the disease processes that result from a dysregulation of this response, as well as recent developments in their treatment.

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