Sex, stress and the hippocampus: allostasis, allostatic load and the aging process

Neurobiol Aging. 2002 Sep-Oct;23(5):921-39. doi: 10.1016/s0197-4580(02)00027-1.


The adaptive responses of the body that maintain homeostasis in response to stressors can be called "allostasis", meaning "achieving stability through change". Mediators produced by the immune system, autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal(HPA) axis produce allostasis. The brain also shows allostasis, involving the activation of nerve cell activity and the release of neurotransmitters. When the individual is challenged repeatedly or when the allostatic systems remain turned on when no longer needed, the mediators of allostasis can produce a wear and tear on the body and brain that has been termed "allostatic load". Examples of allostatic load include the accumulation of abdominal fat, the loss of bone minerals and the atrophy of nerve cells in the hippocampus. Studies of the hippocampus as a target of stress and sex hormones have revealed a considerable degree of structural plasticity and remodeling in the adult brain that differs between the sexes. Three forms of hippocampal structural plasticity are affected by circulating hormones: (1) repeated stress causes remodeling of dendrites in the CA3 region; (2) different modalities of stress suppress neurogenesis of dentate gyrus granule neurons; (3) ovarian steroids regulate synapse formation during the estrous cycle of female rats. All three forms of structural remodeling of the hippocampus are mediated by hormones working in concert with excitatory amino acids (EAA) and NMDA receptors. EAA and NMDA receptors are also involved in neuronal death that is caused in pyramidal neurons by seizures, by ischemia and by severe and prolonged psychosocial stress. The aging brain seems to be more vulnerable to such effects, although there are considerable individual differences in vulnerability that can be developmentally determined. Moreover, the brain retains considerable resilience in the face of stress, and estrogens appear to play a role in this resilience. "Resilience is an example of successful allostasis in which wear and tear is minimized, and estrogens exemplify the type of agent that works against the allostatic load associated with aging." This review discusses the current status of work on underlying mechanisms for protection and damage.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*