The influence of stress hormones on fear circuitry

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2009;32:289-313. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.051508.135620.


Fear arousal, initiated by an environmental threat, leads to activation of the stress response, a state of alarm that promotes an array of autonomic and endocrine changes designed to aid self-preservation. The stress response includes the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex and catecholamines from the adrenal medulla and sympathetic nerves. These stress hormones, in turn, provide feedback to the brain and influence neural structures that control emotion and cognition. To illustrate this influence, we focus on how it impacts fear conditioning, a behavioral paradigm widely used to study the neural mechanisms underlying the acquisition, expression, consolidation, reconsolidation, and extinction of emotional memories. We also discuss how stress and the endocrine mediators of the stress response influence the morphological and electrophysiological properties of neurons in brain areas that are crucial for fear-conditioning processes, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The information in this review illuminates the behavioral and cellular events that underlie the feedforward and feedback networks that mediate states of fear and stress and their interaction in the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Catecholamines / physiology
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Glucocorticoids / physiology
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Catecholamines
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Hormones