The effects of chronic stress on the human brain: From neurotoxicity, to vulnerability, to opportunity

Front Neuroendocrinol. 2018 Apr;49:91-105. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.02.001. Epub 2018 Feb 5.


For the last five decades, science has managed to delineate the mechanisms by which stress hormones can impact on the human brain. Receptors for glucocorticoids are found in the hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex, three brain regions involved in memory processing and emotional regulation. Studies have shown that chronic exposure to stress is associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus and that chronic stress can modulate volumes of both the amygdala and frontal cortex, suggesting neurotoxic effects of stress hormones on the brain. Yet, other studies report that exposure to early adversity and/or familial/social stressors can increase vulnerability to stress in adulthood. Models have been recently developed to describe the roles that neurotoxic and vulnerability effects can have on the developing brain. These models suggest that developing early stress interventions could potentially counteract the effects of chronic stress on the brain and results going along with this hypothesis are summarized.

Keywords: Allostatic load; Cognition; Glucocorticoids; Humans; Mental health; Neurotoxicity; Stress; Vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / metabolism*
  • Disease Susceptibility / metabolism*
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Hippocampus / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Glucocorticoids

Grant support