, Volume 25, Issue 9-10, pp 1219-1231

Allostasis, Allostatic Load, and the Aging Nervous System: Role of Excitatory Amino Acids and Excitotoxicity

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Abstract

The adaptive responses of the body to challenges, often known as “stressors”, consists of active responses that maintain homeostasis. This process of adaptation is known as “allostasis”, meaning “achieving stability through change”. Many systems of the body show allostasis, including the autonomic nervous system and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and they help to re-establish or maintain homeostasis through adaptation. The brain also shows allostasis, involving the activation of nerve cell activity and the release of neurotransmitters. When the individual is challenged repeatedly or when the allostatic systems remain turned on when no longer needed, the mediators of allostasis can produce a wear and tear on the body that has been termed “allostatic load”. Examples of allostatic load include the accumulation of abdominal fat, the loss of bone minerals and the atrophy of nerve cells in the hippocampus. Circulating stress hormones play a key role, and, in the hippocampus, excitatory amino acids and NMDA receptors are important mediators of neuronal atrophy. The aging brain seems to be more vulnerable to such effects, although there are considerable individual differences in vulnerability that can be developmentally determined. Yet, at the same time, excitatory amino acids and NMDA receptors mediate important types of plasticity in the hippocampus. Moreover, the brain retains considerable resilience in the face of stress, and estrogens appear to play a role in this resilience. This review discusses the current status of work on underlying mechanisms for these effects.