The body's principal adaptive responses to stress stimuli are mediated by an intricate stress system, which includes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS). Dysregulation of the system, caused by the cumulative burden of repetitive or chronic environmental stress challenges (allostatic load) contributes to the development of a variety of illnesses including hypertension, atherosclerosis, and the insulin-resistance-dyslipidemia syndrome, as well as certain disorders of immune function. The brain's limbic system, particularly the hippocampus and amygdala, is also intimately involved in the stress response. Chronically elevated corticosteroid levels induced by persisting stress may adversely affect hippocampal structure and function, producing deficits of both memory and cognition. The ability of stress to cause illness in humans is most clearly exemplified by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which consists of a predictable constellation of distressing behavioral symptoms and physiological features. An appreciable proportion of the observed variance in vulnerability to PTSD is attributable to genetic factors. The relationship of this disorder to its precipitating cause-a recent, severely traumatic event-is unambiguous. The neuroendocrinology of PTSD is noteworthy, being characterized in many adult victims by enhanced negative feedback sensitivity of glucocorticoid receptors in the stress response system, and lower than normal urinary and plasma cortisol levels. Adult patients with PTSD also have been shown to exhibit exaggerated catecholamine responses to trauma-related stimuli. On the other hand, severely maltreated prepubertal children with PTSD continue to excrete greater than normal urinary cortisol, catecholamines, and dopamine years after disclosure of the causative abuse.
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