Although some laboratories have reported that a single session of stress is able to induce a long-lasting sensitisation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to further exposures to stress, we have found that a single exposure to severe emotional (immobilisation, restraint or shock) or systemic (endotoxin) stressors reduces the responsiveness of the HPA to the same, but not to a novel (heterotypic), stressor, in which case a slight sensitisation was observed. Long-term desensitisation has been found to reduce not only secretion of peripheral HPA hormones (ACTH and corticosterone), but also to reduce responses of central components of the HPA axis (c-fos and CRF gene expression at the level of the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, PVN). In addition, desensitisation also applies to the impact of the stressor on food intake and, probably, to stress-induced hyperglycaemia. The development of long-term desensitisation of the HPA axis does not appear to be a universal consequence of exposure to severe stressors as it was not observed in response to insulin-induced hypoglycaemia. Whether or not the development of long-term effects of stress depend on the specific pathways activated by particular stressors remains to be tested. The observed desensitisation of the HPA axis in response to the homotypic stressor shows two special features which makes it difficult to be interpreted in terms of an habituation-like process: (a) the effect increased with time (days to weeks) elapsed between the first and second exposure to the stressor, suggesting a progressive maturational process; and (b) the stronger the stressor the greater the long-term desensitisation. Therefore, it is possible that desensitisation of the HPA axis is the sum of two different phenomena: long-term effects and habituation-like processes. The contribution of the former may be more relevant with severe stressors and longer inter-stress intervals, and that of the latter with mild stressors and repeated exposures. Long-term stress-induced changes may not take place at the level of the PVN itself, but in brain nuclei showing synaptic plasticity and putatively involved in the control of the HPA axis and other physiological responses. As for the precise areas involved, these remain to be characterized.
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