The brain and the stress axis: the neural correlates of cortisol regulation in response to stress

Neuroimage. 2009 Sep;47(3):864-71. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.074. Epub 2009 Jun 13.


The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the major endocrine stress axis of the human organism. Cortisol, the final hormone of this axis, affects metabolic, cardiovascular and central nervous systems both acutely and chronically. Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques have led to the investigation of regulatory networks and mechanisms of cortisol regulation in the central nervous system in human populations. In the following review, results from human and animal studies are being presented that investigate the specific role of hippocampus (HC), amygdala (AG), prefrontal cortex (PFC), and brainstem nuclei in cortisol regulation in response to stress. In general, the types of stressors need to be distinguished when discussing the contributions of these structures in regulating the HPA axis. We propose a basic framework on how these structures communicate as a network to regulate cortisol secretion in response to psychological stress. Furthermore, we review critical studies that have substantially contributed to the literature. Possible future research avenues in the field of neuroimaging of cortisol regulation are discussed. In combination with investigations on genetic and environmental factors that influence the development of the HPA axis, this emerging new research will eventually allow the formulation of a more comprehensive framework of functional neuroanatomy of cortisol regulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*


  • Hydrocortisone