Protection and damage from acute and chronic stress: allostasis and allostatic overload and relevance to the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders.
Stress promotes adaptation, but prolonged stress leads over time to wear-and-tear on the body (allostatic load). Neural changes mirror the pattern seen in other body systems, that is, short-term adaptation vs. long-term damage. Allostatic load leads to impaired immunity, atherosclerosis, obesity, bone demineralization, and atrophy of nerve cells in the brain. Many of these processes are seen in major depressive illness and may be expressed also in other chronic anxiety disorders. The brain controls the physiological and behavioral coping responses to daily events and stressors. The hippocampal formation expresses high levels of adrenal steroid receptors and is a malleable brain structure that is important for certain types of learning and memory. It is also vulnerable to the effects of stress and trauma. The amygdala mediates physiological and behavioral responses associated with fear. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in working memory and executive function and is also involved in extinction of learning. All three regions are targets of stress hormones. In animal models, neurons in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex respond to repeated stress by showing atrophy, whereas neurons in amygdala show a growth response. Yet, these are not necessarily "damaged" and may be treatable with the right medications.