The organization of the stress system and its dysregulation in depressive illness

Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Feb;20(1):32-47. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.163. Epub 2014 Dec 9.


Stressors are imminent or perceived challenges to homeostasis. The stress response is an innate, stereotypic, adaptive response to stressors that has evolved in the service of restoring the nonstressed homeostatic set point. It is encoded in specific neuroanatomical sites that activate a specific repertoire of cognitive, behavioral and physiologic phenomena. Adaptive responses, though essential for survival, can become dysregulated and result in disease. A clear example is autoimmune disease. I postulate that depression, like autoimmunity, represents a dysregulated adaptive response: a stress response that has gone awry. The cardinal manifestation of the normal stress response is anxiety. Cognitive programs shift from complex associative operations to rapid retrieval of unconscious emotional memories acquired during prior threatening situations. These emerge automatically to promote survival. To prevent distraction during stressful situations, the capacity to seek and experience pleasure is reduced, food intake is diminished and sexual activity and sleep are held in abeyance. Monoamines, cytokines, glutamate, GABA and other central mediators have key roles in the normal stress response. Many central loci are involved. The subgenual prefrontal cortex restrains the amygdala, the corticotropin-releasing hormone/hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (CRH/HPA) axis and the sympathomedullary system. The function of the subgenual prefrontal cortex is moderately diminished during normal stress to disinhibit these loci. This disinhibition promotes anxiety and physiological hyperarousal, while diminishing appetite and sleep. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is downregulated, diminishing cognitive regulation of anxiety. The nucleus accumbens is also downregulated, to reduce the propensity for distraction by pleasurable stimuli or the capacity to experience pleasure. Insulin resistance, inflammation and a prothrombotic state acutely emerge. These provide increased glucose for the brain and establish premonitory, proinflammatory and prothrombotic states in anticipation of either injury or hemorrhage during a threatening situation. Essential adaptive intracellular changes include increased neurogenesis, enhancement of neuroplasticity and deployment of a successful endoplasmic reticulum stress response. In melancholic depression, the activities of the central glutamate, norepinephrine and central cytokine systems are significantly and persistently increased. The subgenual prefrontal cortex is functionally impaired, and its size is reduced by as much as 40%. This leads to sustained anxiety and activations of the amygdala, CRH/HPA axis, the sympathomedullary system and their sequella, including early morning awakening and loss of appetite. The sustained activation of the amygdala, in turn, further activates stress system neuroendocrine and autonomic functions. The activity of the nucleus accumbens is further decreased and anhedonia emerges. Concomitantly, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity fall significantly. Antidepressants ameliorate many of these processes. The processes that lead to the behavioral and physiological manifestations of depressive illness produce a significant decrease in lifespan, and a doubling of the incidence of premature coronary artery disease. The incidences of premature diabetes and osteoporosis are also substantially increased. Six physiological processes that occur during stress and that are markedly increased in melancholia set into motion six different mechanisms to produce inflammation, as well as sustained insulin resistance and a prothrombotic state. Clinically, melancholic and atypical depression seem to be antithesis of one another. In melancholia, depressive systems are at their worst in the morning when arousal systems, such as the CRH/HPA axis and the noradrenergic systems, are at their maxima. In atypical depression, depressive symptoms are at their worst in the evening, when these arousal systems are at their minima. Melancholic patients experience anorexia and insomnia, whereas atypical patients experience hyperphagia and hypersomnia. Melancholia seems like an activation and persistence of the normal stress response, whereas atypical depression resembles a stress response that has been excessively inhibited. It is important that we stratify clinical studies of depressed patients to compare melancholic and atypical subtypes and establish their differential pathophysiology. Overall, it is important to note that many of the major mediators of the stress response and melancholic depression, such as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the noradrenergic system and the CRH/HPA axis participate in multiple reinforcing positive feedback loops. This organization permits the establishment of the markedly exaggerated, persistent elevation of the stress response seen in melancholia. Given their pronounced interrelatedness, it may not matter where in this cascade the first abnormality arises. It will spread to the other loci and initiate each of their activations in a pernicious vicious cycle.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Depression / pathology*
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology


  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone