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The effects of allostatic load on neural systems subserving motivation, mood regulation, and social affiliation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2011

Theodore P. Beauchaine*
Washington State University
Emily Neuhaus
University of Washington
Maureen Zalewski
University of Washington
Sheila E. Crowell
University of Utah
Natalia Potapova
Washington State University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Theodore P. Beauchaine, Department of Psychology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4820; E-mail:


The term allostasis, which is defined as stability through change, has been invoked repeatedly by developmental psychopathologists to describe long-lasting and in some cases permanent functional alterations in limbic–hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis responding following recurrent and/or prolonged exposure to stress. Increasingly, allostatic load models have also been invoked to describe psychological sequelae of abuse, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment. In contrast, neural adaptations to stress, including those incurred by monoamine systems implicated in (a) mood and emotion regulation, (b) behavioral approach, and (c) social affiliation and attachment, are usually not included in models of allostasis. Rather, structural and functional alterations in these systems, which are exquisitely sensitive to prolonged stress exposure, are usually explained as stress mediators, neural plasticity, and/or programming effects. Considering these mechanisms as distinct from allostasis is somewhat artificial given overlapping functions and intricate coregulation of monoamines and the limbic–hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. It also fractionates literatures that should be mutually informative. In this article, we describe structural and functional alterations in serotonergic, dopaminergic, and noradrenergic neural systems following both acute and prolonged exposure to stress. Through increases in behavioral impulsivity, trait anxiety, mood and emotion dysregulation, and asociality, alterations in monoamine functioning have profound effects on personality, attachment relationships, and the emergence of psychopathology.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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