Habituation to repeated stress: get used to it

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2009 Sep;92(2):215-24. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2008.07.001. Epub 2008 Aug 19.


Habituation, as described in the landmark paper by Thompson et al. [Thompson, R. F., & Spencer, W. A. (1966). Habituation: A model phenomenon for the study of neuronal substrates of behavior. Psychological Review, 73(1), 16-43], is a form of simple, nonassociative learning in which the magnitude of the response to a specific stimulus decreases with repeated exposure to that stimulus. A variety of neuronal and behavioral responses have been shown to be subject to habituation based on the criteria presented in that paper. It has been known for several decades that the magnitude of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activation occurring in response to a stressor declines with repeated exposure to that same stressor. For some time this decline has been referred to as "habituation" in the stress neurobiology literature. However, how this usage compares to the definition proposed by Thompson and Spencer has not been systematically addressed. For this special issue, we review the stress neurobiology literature and examine the support available for considering declines in HPA response to repeated stress to be response habituation in the sense defined by Thompson and Spencer. We conclude that habituation of HPA activity meets many, but not all, important criteria for response habituation, supporting the use of this term within the context of repeated stress. However, we also propose that response habituation can, at best, only partially explain the phenomenon of HPA habituation, which also involves well-known negative feedback mechanisms, activation of broad stress-related neural circuitry and potentially more complex associative learning mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*