Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a 41 amino acid-containing peptide, appears to mediate not only the endocrine but also the autonomic and behavioral responses to stress. Stress, in particular early-life stress such as childhood abuse and neglect, has been associated with a higher prevalence rate of affective and anxiety disorders in adulthood. In the present review, we describe the evidence suggesting that CRF is hypersecreted from hypothalamic as well as from extrahypothalamic neurons in depression, resulting in hyperactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and elevations of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) concentrations of CRF. This increase in CRF neuronal activity is also believed to mediate certain of the behavioral symptoms of depression involving sleep and appetite disturbances, reduced libido, and psychomotor changes. The hyperactivity of CRF neuronal systems appears to be a state marker for depression because HPA axis hyperactivity normalizes following successful antidepressant treatment. Similar biochemical and behavioral findings have been observed in adult rats and monkeys that have been subjected to early-life stress. In contrast, clinical studies have not revealed any consistent changes in CSF CRF concentrations in patients with anxiety disorders; however, preclinical findings strongly implicate a role for CRF in the pathophysiology of certain anxiety disorders, probably through its effects on central noradrenergic systems. The findings reviewed here support the hypothesis that CRF receptor antagonists may represent a novel class of antidepressants and/or anxiolytics.
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