Transcriptional implications of ultradian glucocorticoid secretion in homeostasis and in the acute stress response

Physiol Genomics. 2012 Feb 1;44(2):121-9. doi: 10.1152/physiolgenomics.00128.2011. Epub 2011 Nov 29.


Endogenous glucocorticoids are secreted by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to a wide range of stressors. Glucocorticoids exert significant downstream effects, including the regulation of many inflammatory genes. The HPA axis functions such that glucocorticoids are released in a pulsatile manner, producing ultradian rhythms in plasma glucocorticoid levels. It is becoming increasingly evident that this ultradian pulsatility is important in maintaining proper homeostatic regulation and responsiveness to stress. This is particularly interesting from a clinical perspective given that pathological dysfunctions of the HPA axis produce altered ultradian patterns. Modeling this system facilitates the understanding of how glucocorticoid pulsatility arises, how it can be lost, and the transcriptional implications of ultradian rhythms. To approach these questions, we developed a mathematical model that integrates the cyclic production of glucocorticoids by the HPA axis and their downstream effects by integrating existing models of the HPA axis and glucocorticoid pharmacodynamics. This combined model allowed us to evaluate the implications of pulsatility in homeostasis as well as in response to acute stress. The presence of ultradian rhythms allows the system to maintain a lower response to homeostatic levels of glucocorticoids, but diminished feedback within the HPA axis leads to a loss of glucocorticoid rhythmicity. Furthermore, the loss of HPA pulsatility in homeostasis correlates with a decrease in the peak output in response to an acute stressor. These results are important in understanding how cyclic glucocorticoid secretion helps maintain the responsiveness of the HPA axis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • Glucocorticoids