CRH and vasopressin are released from neurosecretory nerve terminals at the median eminence. They are transported to the anterior pituitary through the portal blood vessel system of the hypophyseal stalk. There, CRH and vasopressin act synergistically to stimulate the secretion of stored ACTH from corticotrope cells. ACTH is transported by the blood to the adrenal cortex of the adrenal gland, where it rapidly stimulates biosynthesis of corticosteroids such as cortisol from cholesterol. Cortisol is a major stress hormone and has effects on many tissues in the body, including on the brain. In the brain, cortisol acts at two types of receptor - mineralocorticoid receptors and glucocorticoid receptors, and these are expressed by many different types of neuron. One important target of glucocorticoids is the hippocampus, which is a major controlling centre of the HPA axis.
Vasopressin can be thought of as "water conservation hormone" and is also known as "antidiuretic hormone." It is released when the body is dehydrated and has potent water-conserving effects on the kidney. It is also a potent vasoconstrictor.
Important to the function of the HPA axis are some of the feedback loops:
Anatomical connections between brain areas such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus facilitate activation of the HPA axis. Sensory information arriving at the lateral aspect of the amygdala is processed and conveyed to the central nucleus, which projects to several parts of the brain involved in responses to fear. At the hypothalamus, fear-signaling impulses activate both the sympathetic nervous system and the modulating systems of the HPA axis.
Increased production of cortisol mediates alarm reactions to stress, facilitating an adaptive phase of a general adaptation syndrome in which alarm reactions including the immune response are suppressed, allowing the body to attempt countermeasures.
Glucocorticoids have many important functions, including modulation of stress reactions, but in excess they can be damaging. Atrophy of the hippocampus in humans and animals exposed to severe stress is believed to be caused by prolonged exposure to high concentrations of glucocorticoids. Deficiencies of the hippocampus may reduce the memory resources available to help a body formulate appropriate reactions to stress.
The HPA axis is involved in the neurobiology of mood disorders and functional illnesses, including anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, major depressive disorder, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and alcoholism. Antidepressants, which are routinely prescribed for many of these illnesses, serve to regulate HPA axis function.
Experimental studies have investigated many different types of stress, and their effects on the HPA axis in many different circumstances. Stressors can be of many different types - in experimental studies in rats, a distinction is often made between "social stress" and "physical stress", but both types activate the HPA axis, though via different pathways.Several monoamine neurotransmitters are important in regulating the HPA axis, especially dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). In herbal medicine, adaptogens work by reregulating the HPA axis.
The HPA axis is a feature of other vertebrates as well as of mammals. For example, biologists studying stress in fish showed that social subordination leads to chronic stress, related to reduced aggressive interactions, to lack of control and to the constant threat imposed by dominant fish. Serotonin (5HT) appeared to be the active neurotransmitter involved in mediating stress responses, and increases in serotonin are related to increased plasma α-MSH levels, which causes skin darkening (a social signal in salmonoid fish), activation of the HPA axis, and inhibition of aggression. Inclusion of the amino acid L-tryptophan, a precursor of 5HT, in the feed of rainbow trout made the trout less aggressive and less responsive to stress However, the study mentions that plasma cortisol was not affected by dietary L-tryptophan.