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Understanding behavioral effects of early life stress using the reactive scope and allostatic load models

  • Brittany R. Howell (a1) and Mar M. Sanchez (a1)

The mechanisms through which early life stress leads to psychopathology are thought to involve allostatic load, the “wear and tear” an organism is subjected to as a consequence of sustained elevated levels of glucocorticoids caused by repeated/prolonged stress activations. The allostatic load model described this phenomenon, but has been criticized as inadequate to explain alterations associated with early adverse experience in some systems, including behavior, which cannot be entirely explained from an energy balance perspective. The reactive scope model has been more recently proposed and focuses less on energy balance and more on dynamic ranges of physiological and behavioral mediators. In this review we examine the mechanisms underlying the behavioral consequences of early life stress in the context of both these models. We focus on adverse experiences that involve mother–infant relationship disruption, and dissect those mechanisms involving maternal care as a regulator of development of neural circuits that control emotional and social behaviors in the offspring. We also discuss the evolutionary purpose of the plasticity in behavioral development, which has a clear adaptive value in a changing environment.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Mar M. Sanchez, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, 954 Gatewood Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30329; E-mail:
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
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