Recent studies have focused on the behavioral and neurobiological sequella of exposure to early adverse events. We hypothesize that early adverse experiences result in an increased sensitivity to the effects of stress later in life and render an individual vulnerable to stress-related psychiatric disorders. This vulnerability may be mediated by persistent changes in corticotropin-releasing-factor (CRF)-containing neurons, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and the sympathetic nervous system. We therefore present an overview of the CRF system and its role as a mediator in the development of the stress response, major depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. The literature pertaining to behavioral and neurobiological alterations associated with exposure to early adverse life events in rodents, nonhuman primates, and humans is reviewed. We focus on animal models that precipitate depressive and anxiety symptoms while producing neuroendocrine alterations that mimic those seen in adults with those disorders. The literature integrating neurobiological and behavioral consequences of early life stress is also reviewed, focusing primarily on infants born to mothers with depression and on infants who were abused or neglected.
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