The stressed brain of humans and rodents

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2018 Jun;223(2):e13066. doi: 10.1111/apha.13066. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


After stress, the brain is exposed to waves of stress mediators, including corticosterone (in rodents) and cortisol (in humans). Corticosteroid hormones affect neuronal physiology in two time-domains: rapid, non-genomic actions primarily via mineralocorticoid receptors; and delayed genomic effects via glucocorticoid receptors. In parallel, cognitive processing is affected by stress hormones. Directly after stress, emotional behaviour involving the amygdala is strongly facilitated with cognitively a strong emphasis on the "now" and "self," at the cost of higher cognitive processing. This enables the organism to quickly and adequately respond to the situation at hand. Several hours later, emotional circuits are dampened while functions related to the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are promoted. This allows the individual to rationalize the stressful event and place it in the right context, which is beneficial in the long run. The brain's response to stress depends on an individual's genetic background in interaction with life events. Studies in rodents point to the possibility to prevent or reverse long-term consequences of early life adversity on cognitive processing, by normalizing the balance between the two receptor types for corticosteroid hormones at a critical moment just before the onset of puberty.

Keywords: amygdala; corticosterone; cortisol; early life stress; hippocampus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Corticosterone / metabolism*
  • Corticosterone / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / drug effects
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism*
  • Stress, Physiological / drug effects
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / drug therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology


  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Corticosterone