Blunted hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal axis response to predator odor predicts high stress reactivity

Physiol Behav. 2015 Aug 1;147:16-22. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.03.033. Epub 2015 Mar 27.


Individuals with trauma- and stress-related disorders exhibit increases in avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, heightened anxiety and altered neuroendocrine stress responses. Our laboratory uses a rodent model of stress that mimics the avoidance symptom cluster associated with stress-related disorders. Animals are classified as 'Avoiders' or 'Non-Avoiders' post-stress based on avoidance of predator-odor paired context. Utilizing this model, we are able to examine subpopulation differences in stress reactivity. Here, we used this predator odor model of stress to examine differences in anxiety-like behavior and hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis function in animals that avoid a predator-paired context relative to those that do not. Rats were exposed to predator odor stress paired with a context and tested for avoidance (24h and 11days), anxiety-like behavior (48h and 5days) and HPA activation following stress. Control animals were exposed to room air. Predator odor stress produced avoidance in approximately 65% of the animals at 24h that persisted 11days post-stress. Both Avoiders and Non-Avoiders exhibited a heightened anxiety-like behavior at 48h and 5days post-stress when compared to unstressed Controls. Non-Avoiders exhibited significant increases in circulating adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) and corticosterone (CORT) concentrations immediately following predator odor stress compared to Controls and this response was significantly attenuated in Avoiders. There was an inverse correlation between circulating ACTH/CORT concentrations and avoidance, indicating that lower levels of ACTH/CORT predicted higher levels of avoidance. These results suggest that stress effects on HPA stress axis activation predict long-term avoidance of stress-paired stimuli, and build on previous data showing the utility of this model for exploring the neurobiological mechanisms of trauma- and stress-related disorders.

Keywords: Anxiety; Avoidance; HPA axis; Paraventricular nucleus; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Anxiety / blood*
  • Anxiety / etiology*
  • Anxiety / pathology
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology
  • Brain / pathology
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Corticosterone
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Maze Learning
  • Odorants*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Radioimmunoassay
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Time Factors


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticosterone