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J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 1991 Aug;39(2):265-74.

Cellular mechanisms underlying the development and expression of individual differences in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress response.

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McGill University-Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, Montreal, Canada.


Several years ago Levine, Denenberg, Ader, and others described the effects of postnatal "handling" on the development of behavioral and endocrine responses to stress. As adults, handled rats exhibited attenuated fearfulness in novel environments and a less pronounced increase in the secretion of the adrenal glucocorticoids in response to a variety of stressors. These findings clearly demonstrated that the development of rudimentary, adaptive responses to stress could be modified by environmental events. We have followed these earlier studies, convinced that this paradigm provides a marvellous opportunity to examine how subtle variations in the early environment alter the development of specific neurochemical systems, leading to stable individual differences in biological responses to stimuli that threaten homeostasis. In this work we have shown how early handling influences the development of certain brain regions that regulate glucocorticoid negative-feedback inhibition over hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity. Specifically, handling increases glucocorticoid (type II corticosteroid) receptor density in the hippocampus and frontal cortex, enhancing the sensitivity of these structures to the negative-feedback effects of elevated circulating glucocorticoids, and increasing the efficacy of neural inhibition over ACTH secretion. These effects are reflected in the differential secretory pattern of ACTH and corticosterone in handled and nonhandled animals under conditions of stress. In more recent years, using a hippocampal cell culture system, we have provided evidence for the importance of serotonin-induced changes in cAMP levels in mediating the effect of postnatal handling on hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor density. The results of these studies are consistent with the idea that environmental events in early life can permanently alter glucocorticoid receptor gene expression in the hippocampus, providing evidence for a neural mechanism for the development of individual differences in HPA function.

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