Neuronal plasticity: a link between stress and mood disorders

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Dec;34 Suppl 1:S208-16. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.05.014.


Although stress represents the major environmental element of susceptibility for mood disorders, the relationship between stress and disease remains to be fully established. In the present article we review the evidence in support for a role of neuronal plasticity, and in particular of neurotrophic factors. Even though decreased levels of norepinephrine and serotonin may underlie depressive symptoms, compelling evidence now suggests that mood disorders are characterized by reduced neuronal plasticity, which can be brought about by exposure to stress at different stages of life. Indeed the expression of neurotrophic molecules, such as the neurotrophin BDNF, is reduced in depressed subjects as well as in experimental animals exposed to adverse experience at early stages of life or at adulthood. These changes show an anatomical specificity and might be sustained by epigenetic mechanisms. Pharmacological intervention may normalize such defects and improve neuronal function through the modulation of the same factors that are defective in depression. Several studies have demonstrated that chronic, but not acute, antidepressant treatment increases the expression of BDNF and may enhance its localization at synaptic level. Antidepressant treatment can normalize deficits in neurotrophin expression produced by chronic stress paradigms, but may also alter the modulation of BDNF under acute stressful conditions. In summary, there is good agreement in considering neuronal plasticity, and the expression of key proteins such as the neurotrophin BDNF, as a central player for the effects of stress on brain function and its implication for psychopathology. Accordingly, effective treatments should not limit their effects to the control of neurotransmitter and hormonal dysfunctions, but should be able to normalize defective mechanisms that sustain the impairment of neuronal plasticity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism*
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Mood Disorders / complications
  • Mood Disorders / drug therapy
  • Mood Disorders / metabolism*
  • Nerve Growth Factors / metabolism
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Biomarkers
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Nerve Growth Factors