Stress activates the central and peripheral components of the stress system, i.e., the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the arousal/sympathetic system. The principal effectors of the stress system are corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), arginine vasopressin, the proopiomelanocortin-derived peptides α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone and β-endorphin, the glucocorticoids, and the catecholamines norepinephrine and epinephrine. Appropriate responsiveness of the stress system to stressors is a crucial prerequisite for a sense of well-being, adequate performance of tasks and positive social interactions. By contrast, inappropriate responsiveness of the stress system may impair growth and development, and may account for a number of endocrine, metabolic, autoimmune and psychiatric disorders. The development and severity of these conditions primarily depend on the genetic vulnerability of the individual, the exposure to adverse environmental factors and the timing of the stressful event(s), given that prenatal life, infancy, childhood and adolescence are critical periods characterized by increased vulnerability to stressors. The developing brain undergoes rapid growth and is characterized by high turnover of neuronal connections during the prenatal and early postnatal life. These processes and, hence, brain plasticity, slow down during childhood and puberty, and plateau in young adulthood. Hormonal actions in early life, and to a much lesser extent later, can be organizational, i.e., can have effects that last for long periods of time, often for the entire life of the individual. Hormones of the stress system and sex steroids have such effects, which influence the behavior and certain physiologic functions of individuals for life. Exposure of the developing brain to severe and/or prolonged stress may result in hyperactivity/hyperreactivity of the stress system, with resultant amygdala hyperfunction (fear reaction), decreased activity of the hippocampus (defective glucocorticoid-negative feedback, cognition), and the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic system (dysthymia, novelty-seeking, addictive behaviors), hyperactivation of the HPA axis (hypercortisolism), suppression of reproductive, growth, thyroid and immune functions, and changes in pain perception. These changes may be accompanied by abnormal childhood, adolescent and adult behaviors, including excessive fear (‘inhibited child syndrome’) and addictive behaviors, dysthymia and/or depression, and gradual development of components of the metabolic syndrome X, including visceral obesity and essential hypertension. Prenatal stress exerted during the period of sexual differentiation may be accompanied by impairment of this process with behavioral and/or somatic sequelae. The vulnerability of individuals to develop varying degrees and/or components of the above life-long syndrome is defined by as yet unidentified genetic factors, which account for up to 60% of the variance. CRH has marked kindling and glucocorticoids have strong consolidating properties, hence both of these hormones are crucial in development and can alone produce the above syndrome. CRH and glucocorticoids may act in synergy, as in acoustic startle, while glucocorticoids may suppress or stimulate CRH, as in the hypothalamus and amygdala, respectively. A CRH type 1 receptor antagonist, antalarmin, inhibits both the development and expression of conditioned fear in rats, and has anxiolytic properties in monkeys. Profound stressors, such as those from sexual abuse, may elicit the syndrome in older children, adolescents and adults. Most frequently, chronic dysthymia and/or depression may develop in association with gastrointestinal complaints and/or the premenstrual tension syndrome. A lesser proportion of individuals may develop the classic posttraumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by hypocortisolism and intrusive and avoidance symptoms; in younger individuals it may present as dissociative personality disorder.
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