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Perinatal programming of neuroendocrine mechanisms connecting feeding behavior and stress

DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00109

Keywords: hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, glucocorticoids, development, leptin, insulin

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Feeding behavior is closely regulated by neuroendocrine mechanisms that can be influenced by stressful life events. However, the feeding response to stress varies among individuals with some increasing and others decreasing food intake after stress. In addition to the impact of acute lifestyle and genetic backgrounds, the early life environment can have a life-long influence on neuroendocrine mechanisms connecting stress to feeding behavior and may partially explain these opposing feeding responses to stress. In this review I will discuss the perinatal programming of adult hypothalamic stress and feeding circuitry. Specifically I will address how early life (prenatal and postnatal) nutrition, early life stress, and the early life hormonal profile can program the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the endocrine arm of the body's response to stress long-term and how these changes can, in turn, influence the hypothalamic circuitry responsible for regulating feeding behavior. Thus, over- or under-feeding and/or stressful events during critical windows of early development can alter glucocorticoid (GC) regulation of the HPA axis, leading to changes in the GC influence on energy storage and changes in GC negative feedback on HPA axis-derived satiety signals such as corticotropin-releasing-hormone. Furthermore, peripheral hormones controlling satiety, such as leptin and insulin are altered by early life events, and can be influenced, in early life and adulthood, by stress. Importantly, these neuroendocrine signals act as trophic factors during development to stimulate connectivity throughout the hypothalamus. The interplay between these neuroendocrine signals, the perinatal environment, and activation of the stress circuitry in adulthood thus strongly influences feeding behavior and may explain why individuals have unique feeding responses to similar stressors.


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