Sunday, January 25, 2015

The rough guide to the stress response

[Note: This post is intended as reading material for my upcoming online course, "Canine Hormones: From molecules to behavior." This is an entirely online course offered through APDT, begins Februrary 11, and is worth 12 CEUs. I posted with more information. I encourage you to sign up!] 

The series of organs working together to form to stress response are called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This post is a reference to them. The major players are:

The hypothalamus

The hypothalamus
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.1 jp
via Wikimedia Commons
What it is: part of the brain, an important link between the nervous system and the endocrine (hormonal) system

What it does in the HPA: in response to input from other parts of the brain, releases cortocotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into blood vessels which take it directly to the pituitary and not into the rest of the body

The pituitary
Emplacement de l'Hypophyse
Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator
via Wikimedia

The pituitary

What it is: a little gland hanging off the bottom of the brain. Some people consider it part of the brain and some don't.

What it does in the HPA: in response to hormones coming through the blood directly from the hypothalamus (not going out through the rest of the body first), sends adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) out to the rest of the body

The adrenals

What they are: small organs next to the kidneys responsible for sending all kinds of important hormones out into the body

What they do in the HPA: in response to ACTH in the bloodstream, release cortisol into the bloodstream so that it can alert different organs and tissues around the body to the need to respond to a stressor

The minor players

Those are the three organs which are part of the name of the stress response: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. But to some extent, humans just chose those three as the central parts of the axis because we understood their functions first. Other organs are important in the functioning of the stress system too.

The hippocampus

What it is: a part of the brain associated with learning and memory

What it does in the HPA: assesses the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream and sends a negative feedback message to the hypothalamus to tell it to slow down the HPA axis (resulting, eventually, in the release of less cortisol from the adrenals). This is probably part of how socialization works: the hippocampus undergoes epigenetic changes early in life which make it more or less able to send the “slow down” message to the hypothalamus and put the brakes on the stress response.

The amygdala

What it is: a part of the brain associated with fear

What it does in the HPA: the amygdala is part of the system that sends that initial message of fear when an animal encounters something scary, triggering the initial HPA axis stress response.

The liver

What it is: an organ that makes a lot of useful substances used for various things in the body

What it does in the HPA: makes corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG), the little protein that carries cortisol around in the blood stream. CBG does more than just ferry cortisol about; it actively spits it out in locations where it's needed, and when an animal has very low levels of CBG, the entire HPA axis becomes less reactive. Very young animals have low levels of CBG, which may contribute to their early lack of fear.

No comments:

Post a Comment