The stress system provides integration of both neurochemical and somatic physiologic functions within organisms as an adaptive mechanism to changing environmental conditions throughout evolution. In mammals and primates the complexity and sophistication of these systems have surpassed other species in triaging neurochemical and physiologic signaling to maximize chances of survival. Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and its related peptides and receptors have been identified over the last three decades and are fundamental molecular initiators of the stress response. They are crucial in the top down regulatory cascade over a myriad of neurochemical, neuroendocrine and sympathetic nervous system events. From neuroscience, we've seen that stress activation impacts behavior, endocrine and somatic physiology and influences neurochemical events that one can capture in real time with current imaging technologies. To delineate these effects one can demonstrate how the CRH neuronal networks infiltrate critical cognitive, emotive and autonomic regions of the central nervous system (CNS) with somatic effects. Abundant preclinical and clinical studies show inter-regulatory actions of CRH with multiple neurotransmitters/peptides. Stress, both acute and chronic has epigenetic effects which magnify genetic susceptibilities to alter neurochemistry; stress system activation can add critical variables in design and interpretation of basic and clinical neuroscience and related research. This review will attempt to provide an overview of the spectrum of known functions and speculative actions of CRH and stress responses in light of imaging technology and its interpretation. Metabolic and neuroreceptor positron emission/single photon tomography (PET/SPECT), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), anatomic MRI, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (pMRS) are technologies that can delineate basic mechanisms of neurophysiology and pharmacology. Stress modulates the myriad of neurochemical and networks within and controlled through the central and peripheral nervous system and the effects of stress activation on imaging will be highlighted.
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