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Fight or Flight?

Researchers determine prefrontal corticotropin-releasing factor neurons as the key neuron responsible for stress responses.

The fight-or-flight response, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915, is a physiological reaction that occurs when there is a perceived threat to survival. Fight, or the active behavioural style, refers to efforts to mitigate the threat and is related to stress resilience; whereas flight, or the passive behavioural style, refers to efforts to avoid confronting the threat and is associated with vulnerability to psychopathology.

To date, the biological basis of behavioural style selection under stressful situations have been poorly understood. However, a team led by Professor Zhou Jianging from University of Science and Technology of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently found that prefrontal corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons are recruited during stress circumstances, and manipulation of CRF neurons motivates the fight-or-flight selection.

In their experiment, they subjected mice to two challenges: tail suspension and forced swimming. Using morphology, electrophysiology, and calcium imaging approaches, they found that CRF neurons were directly engaged in the tail suspension challenge.

Genetic ablation or chemo-genetic inhibition of CRF neurons decreased mobility under the tail-suspension and forced-swimming challenges and induced social avoidance behaviour, while activation had the opposite effect. Furthermore, increasing CRF neuronal activity promoted durable resilience to repeated social defeat stress.

The authors believe their results may point to novel therapeutic targets such as neural circuit modulation for treatment of major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study was published in Neuron[APBN]