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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2008 May;33(4):425-36. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.12.010. Epub 2008 Feb 15.

Control of hormonal stress reactivity by the endogenous opioid system.

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Institute of Molecular Psychiatry, University of Bonn, Sigmund-Freud-Street 25, 53105 Bonn, Germany.


Regulations of hormonal stress responses entail the initiation, amplitude and termination of the reaction, as well as its integration with other stress response systems. This study investigates the role of endogenous opioids in the regulation and integration of behavioral, thermal and hormonal stress responses, as these neuromodulators and their receptors are expressed in limbic structures responsible for stress responses. For this purpose, we subjected mice with selective deletion of beta-endorphin, enkephalin or dynorphin to the zero-maze test, a mildly stressful situation, and registered behaviors and stress hormone levels. Behavioral stress reactivity was assessed using zero-maze, light-dark and startle-reactivity paradigms. Animals lacking enkephalin displayed increased anxiety-related behavioral responses in each three, dynorphin knockouts in two models, whereas the responses of beta-endorphin knockouts indicated lower anxiety level in the zero-maze test. All knockout strains showed marked changes in hormonal stress reactivity. Increase in ACTH level after zero-maze test situation, unlike in wild type animals, failed to reach the level of significance in Penk1(-/-) and Pdyn(-/-) mice. Corticosterone plasma levels rapidly increased in all strains, with a lower peak response in knockouts. In wild-type and beta-endorphin-deficient mice, corticosterone levels returned to baseline within 60min after stress exposure. In contrast, mice lacking dynorphin and enkephalin showed longer-lasting elevated corticosterone levels, indicating a delayed termination of the stress reaction. Importantly, the behavioral and hormonal responses correlated in wild-type but not in knockout mice. Hyperthermia elicited by stress was reduced in animals lacking dynorphin and absent in Penk1(-/-) mice, despite of the heightened behavioral anxiety level of these strains. These results demonstrate an important role on the endogenous opioid system in the integration of behavioral and hormonal stress responses.

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