Objective: This article defines stress and related concepts and reviews their historical development. The notion of a stress system as the effector of the stress syndrome is suggested, and its physiologic and pathophysiologic manifestations are described. A new perspective on human disease states associated with dysregulation of the stress system is provided.
Data sources: Published original articles from human and animal studies and selected reviews. Literature was surveyed utilizing MEDLINE and the Index Medicus.
Study selection: Original articles from the basic science and human literature consisted entirely of controlled studies based on verified methodologies and, with the exception of the most recent studies, replicated by more than one laboratory. Many of the basic science and clinical studies had been conducted in our own laboratories and clinical research units. Reviews cited were written by acknowledged leaders in the fields of neurobiology, endocrinology, and behavior.
Data extraction: Independent extraction and cross-referencing by the authors.
Data synthesis: Stress and related concepts can be traced as far back as written science and medicine. The stress system coordinates the generalized stress response, which takes place when a stressor of any kind exceeds a threshold. The main components of the stress system are the corticotropin-releasing hormone and locus ceruleus-norepinephrine/autonomic systems and their peripheral effectors, the pituitary-adrenal axis, and the limbs of the autonomic system. Activation of the stress system leads to behavioral and peripheral changes that improve the ability of the organism to adjust homeostasis and increase its chances for survival. There has been an exponential increase in knowledge regarding the interactions among the components of the stress system and between the stress system and other brain elements involved in the regulation of emotion, cognitive function, and behavior, as well as with the axes responsible for reproduction, growth, and immunity. This new knowledge has allowed association of stress system dysfunction, characterized by sustained hyperactivity and/or hypoactivity, to various pathophysiologic states that cut across the traditional boundaries of medical disciplines. These include a range of psychiatric, endocrine, and inflammatory disorders and/or susceptibility to such disorders.
Conclusions: We hope that knowledge from apparently disparate fields of science and medicine integrated into a working theoretical framework will allow generation and testing of new hypotheses on the pathophysiology and diagnosis of, and therapy for, a variety of human illnesses reflecting systematic alterations in the principal effectors of the generalized stress response. We predict that pharmacologic agents capable of altering the central apparatus that governs the stress response will be useful in the treatment of many of these illnesses.