Nitric oxide in the stress axis

  • Manuel Óscar López Figueroa
  • H. E.W. Day
  • H. Akil
  • S. J. Watson
Keywords: nitric oxide synthase, hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, oxytocin, vasopressin, steroids, NADPH, CRH, ACTH, glucocorticoid


In recent years nitric oxide (NO) has emerged as a unique biological messenger. NO is a highly diffusible gas, synthesized from L-arginine by the enzyme nitric oxide synthase (NOS). Three unique subtypes of NOS have been described, each with a specific distribution profile in the brain and periphery. NOS subtype I is present, among other areas, in the hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland. Together these structures form the limbichypothalamic- pituitary-adrenal (LHPA) or stress axis, activation of which is one of the defining features of a stress response. Evidence suggests that NO may modulate the release of the stress hormones ACTH and corticosterone, and NOS activity and transcription is increased in the LHPA axis following various stressful stimuli. Furthermore, following activation of the stress axis, glucocorticoids are thought to down-regulate the transcription and activity of NOS via a feedback mechanism. Taken together, current data indicate a role for NO in the regulation of the LHPA axis, although at present this role is not well defined. It has been suggested that NO may act as a cellular communicator in plasticity and development, to facilitate the activation or the release of other neurotransmitters, to mediate immune responses, andlor as a vasodilator in the regulation of blood flow. In the following review we summarize some of the latest insights into the function of NO, with special attention to its relationship with the LHPA axis.
Invited Reviews