Chronic stress in non-human animals decreases the volume of the hippocampus, a brain region that supports learning and memory and that regulates neuroendocrine activity. In humans with stress-related psychiatric syndromes characterized by impaired learning and memory and dysregulated neuroendocrine activity, surrogate and retrospective indicators of chronic stress are also associated with decreased hippocampal volume. However, it is unknown whether chronic stress is associated with decreased hippocampal volume in those without a clinical syndrome. We tested whether reports of life stress obtained prospectively over an approximate 20-year period predicted later hippocampal grey matter volume in 48 healthy postmenopausal women. Women completed the Perceived Stress Scale repeatedly from 1985 to 2004; in 2005 and 2006, their hippocampal grey matter volume was quantified by voxel-based morphometry. Higher Perceived Stress Scale scores from 1985 to 2004 - an indicator of more chronic life stress - predicted decreased grey matter volume in the right orbitofrontal cortex and right hippocampus. These relationships persisted after accounting for age, total grey matter volume, time since menopause, use of hormone therapy, subclinical depressive symptoms, and other potentially confounding behavioral and age-related cerebrovascular risk factors. The relationship between chronic life stress and regional grey matter volume - particularly in the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex - appears to span a continuum that extends to otherwise healthy individuals. Consistent with animal and human clinical evidence, we speculate that chronic-stress-related variations in brain morphology are reciprocally and functionally related to adaptive and maladaptive changes in cognition, neuroendocrine activity, and psychiatric vulnerability. © 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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