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Front Neuroendocrinol. 1994 Dec;15(4):321-50.

Regulation of pituitary ACTH secretion during chronic stress.

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Section on Endocrine Physiology, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, Bethesda, Maryland 20892.


Maintenance of adequate levels of response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis during chronic stress is important for survival. Three basic patterns of response can be identified depending on the type of stress: (a) desensitization of ACTH responses to the sustained stimulus, but hyperresponsiveness to a novel stress despite elevated plasma glucocorticoid levels, as occurs in physical-psychological paradigms; (b) no desensitization of ACTH response to the repeated stimulus and hyperresponsiveness to a novel stress, as occurs during repeated painful stress and insulin hypoglycemia; and (c) small and transient increases in ACTH, but sustained elevations of plasma corticosterone and diminished ACTH responses. The level of response of the pituitary corticotroph is determined by differential regulation of the hypothalamic regulators, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and vasopressin (VP), and the sensitivity of the negative glucocorticoid feedback. While osmotic stimulation increases VP expression in magnocellular neurons of the paraventricular (PVN) and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus, chronic stress paradigms with high pituitary responsiveness are associated with activation of CRH and CRH/VP parvicellular neurons of the PVN, predominantly of the VP-containing population. While moderate increase of CRH output is important for stimulation of POMC transcription, the increase of the VP:CRH secretion ratio appears to be important in maintaining the secretory capacity of the pituitary corticotroph during chronic stimulation. Decreased sensitivity of the glucocorticoid feedback, probably due to interaction of glucocorticoid receptors with transcription factors induced by CRH and VP, is critical for the maintenance of ACTH responses in the presence of elevated plasma glucocorticoid levels during chronic stress. Although both CRH and VP receptors are activated and undergo regulatory variations during chronic stress, only the changes in VP receptor levels are parallel to the changes in pituitary ACTH responsiveness. The inhibitory effect of chronic osmotic stimulation on ACTH secretion in spite of high circulating levels of VP is probably the result of diminished activity of parvicellular PVN neurons and downregulation of pituitary VP receptors. Although the exact interaction between regulatory factors and the molecular mechanisms controlling the sensitivity of the corticotroph during adaptation to chronic stress remain to be determined, it is clear that regulation of the proportional secretion of CRH and VP in the PVN, modulation of pituitary VP receptors, and the sensitivity to feedback inhibition play a critical role.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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