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Defining stress as a prelude to mapping its neurocircuitry : no help from allostasis

journal contribution
posted on 2005-12-01, 00:00 authored by Trevor Day
The way in which researchers conceptualise and thus define stress shapes the way in which they approach the task of mapping the brain's stress control pathways. Unfortunately, much of the research currently being done on stress neurocircuitry is occurring within a poorly developed conceptual framework, a framework that limits the depth of the questions that our studies ask, and even our ability to fully appreciate and make use of the data that they yield. Consequently, any attempt to improve our conceptual framework merits close attention. In that regard it is notable that in recent years it has been argued that the concept of homeostasis should be supplemented by the concepts of allostasis (literally ‘stability through change’) and allostatic load (in effect, the cost of allostasis). One of the purported benefits of this change has been that it will clarify the concept of stress. A close review of the arguments leads us to conclude that the introduction of the concept of allostasis has largely occurred as a result of misunderstandings and misapprehensions concerning the concept of homeostasis. In terms of understanding how the organism operates, it is not clear that the concepts of ‘allostasis’ or ‘allostatic load’ offer us anything that was not already apparent, or at least readily derivable, from an accurate reading of the original concept of homeostasis. Not surprisingly then, these more recently proposed concepts also offer little help in clarifying our understanding of stress. Indeed, rather than clarifying the concept of stress, the primary effort appears to be directed at subsuming the concept of stress within the concept of allostasis, which has the inadvertent effect of collapsing the study of homeostatic responses and stress responses together. This seems to be out of step with the fact that there is now considerable evidence that the brain does indeed possess certain pathways that merit the title of ‘stress neurocircuitry’. The attempt to subsume the concept of stress within the concept of allostasis is also counter-productive in that it distracts stress researchers from the important task of developing conceptual frameworks that allow us to tackle fundamental issues such as how the organism differentiates stressful from non-stressful challenges.



Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry






1195 - 2000




Amsterdam, The Netherlands







Publication classification

C1.1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

Copyright notice

2005, Elsevier