Catecholaminergic systems in stress: structural and molecular genetic approaches

Physiol Rev. 2009 Apr;89(2):535-606. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00042.2006.


Stressful stimuli evoke complex endocrine, autonomic, and behavioral responses that are extremely variable and specific depending on the type and nature of the stressors. We first provide a short overview of physiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics of sympatho-adrenomedullary, sympatho-neural, and brain catecholaminergic systems. Important processes of catecholamine biosynthesis, storage, release, secretion, uptake, reuptake, degradation, and transporters in acutely or chronically stressed organisms are described. We emphasize the structural variability of catecholamine systems and the molecular genetics of enzymes involved in biosynthesis and degradation of catecholamines and transporters. Characterization of enzyme gene promoters, transcriptional and posttranscriptional mechanisms, transcription factors, gene expression and protein translation, as well as different phases of stress-activated transcription and quantitative determination of mRNA levels in stressed organisms are discussed. Data from catecholamine enzyme gene knockout mice are shown. Interaction of catecholaminergic systems with other neurotransmitter and hormonal systems are discussed. We describe the effects of homotypic and heterotypic stressors, adaptation and maladaptation of the organism, and the specificity of stressors (physical, emotional, metabolic, etc.) on activation of catecholaminergic systems at all levels from plasma catecholamines to gene expression of catecholamine enzymes. We also discuss cross-adaptation and the effect of novel heterotypic stressors on organisms adapted to long-term monotypic stressors. The extra-adrenal nonneuronal adrenergic system is described. Stress-related central neuronal regulatory circuits and central organization of responses to various stressors are presented with selected examples of regulatory molecular mechanisms. Data summarized here indicate that catecholaminergic systems are activated in different ways following exposure to distinct stressful stimuli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Medulla / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Catecholamines / genetics*
  • Catecholamines / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology


  • Catecholamines