A users guide to HPA axis research

Physiol Behav. 2017 Sep 1;178:43-65. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.11.014. Epub 2016 Nov 18.


Glucocorticoid hormones (cortisol and corticosterone - CORT) are the effector hormones of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis neuroendocrine system. CORT is a systemic intercellular signal whose level predictably varies with time of day and dynamically increases with environmental and psychological stressors. This hormonal signal is utilized by virtually every cell and physiological system of the body to optimize performance according to circadian, environmental and physiological demands. Disturbances in normal HPA axis activity profiles are associated with a wide variety of physiological and mental health disorders. Despite numerous studies to date that have identified molecular, cellular and systems-level glucocorticoid actions, new glucocorticoid actions and clinical status associations continue to be revealed at a brisk pace in the scientific literature. However, the breadth of investigators working in this area poses distinct challenges in ensuring common practices across investigators, and a full appreciation for the complexity of a system that is often reduced to a single dependent measure. This Users Guide is intended to provide a fundamental overview of conceptual, technical and practical knowledge that will assist individuals who engage in and evaluate HPA axis research. We begin with examination of the anatomical and hormonal components of the HPA axis and their physiological range of operation. We then examine strategies and best practices for systematic manipulation and accurate measurement of HPA axis activity. We feature use of experimental methods that will assist with better understanding of CORT's physiological actions, especially as those actions impact subsequent brain function. This research approach is instrumental for determining the mechanisms by which alterations of HPA axis function may contribute to pathophysiology.

Keywords: ACTH; Corticosterone; Cortisol; Glucocorticoid; HPA axis; Stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Glucocorticoids