Effects of adverse experiences for brain structure and function

Biol Psychiatry. 2000 Oct 15;48(8):721-31. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(00)00964-1.


Studies of the hippocampus as a target of stress and stress hormones have revealed a considerable degree of structural plasticity in the adult brain. Repeated stress causes shortening and debranching of dendrites in the CA3 region of the hippocampus and suppresses neurogenesis of dentate gyrus granule neurons. Both forms of structural remodeling of the hippocampus appear to be reversible and are mediated by glucocorticoid hormones working in concert with excitatory amino acids (EAA) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, along with transmitters such as serotonin and the GABA-benzodiazepine system. Glucocorticoids, EAA, and NMDA receptors are also involved in neuronal damage and death that is caused in pyramidal neurons by seizures and by ischemia. A similar mechanism may be involved in hippocampal damage caused by severe and prolonged psychosocial stress. Studies using magnetic resonance imaging have shown that there is a selective atrophy of the human hippocampus in a number of psychiatric disorders, as well as during aging in some individuals, accompanied by deficits in declarative, spatial, and contextual memory performance. It is therefore important to appreciate how hippocampal dysfunction may play a role in the symptoms of the psychiatric illness and, from a therapeutic standpoint, to distinguish between a permanent loss of cells and a reversible remodeling to develop treatment strategies to prevent or reverse deficits. Remodeling of the hippocampus may be only the tip of the iceberg; other brain regions may also be affected.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Atrophy / etiology
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Corticosterone / pharmacology
  • Dendrites / drug effects
  • Dendrites / metabolism
  • Dentate Gyrus / drug effects
  • Dentate Gyrus / metabolism
  • Dentate Gyrus / pathology
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / metabolism*
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / complications
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Receptors, GABA / drug effects
  • Receptors, GABA / metabolism
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / drug effects
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects
  • Up-Regulation / physiology


  • Receptors, GABA
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Corticosterone