Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus are the canonical controllers of the endocrine response to stress. Here we propose a new role for these cells as a gate for state transitions that allow the organism to engage in stress-related behaviors. Specifically, we review evidence indicating that activation of these cells at critical times allows organisms to move to a state that is permissive for motor action. This is evident when the organism is under duress (defensive behavior), when the organism has successfully vanquished a threat (coping behavior), and when an organism initiates approach to a conspecific (social behavior). The motor behavior that follows from the activation of CRH neurons is not necessarily under the control of these cells but is determined by higher order circuits that discriminate more refined features of environmental context to execute the appropriate behavior.
Keywords: CRH; coping; defensive behaviors; escape; hypothalamus; stress transmission.
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