The habenula as a critical node in chronic stress-related anxiety


The habenula is activated in response to stressful and aversive events, resulting in exploratory inhibition. Although possible mechanisms for habenula activation have been proposed, the effects of chronic stress on the habenular structure have never been studied. Herein, we assessed changes in volume, cell density and dendritic structure of habenular cells after chronic stress exposure using stereological and 3D morphological analysis. This study shows for the first time that there is a hemispherical asymmetry in the medial habenula (MHb) of the adult rat, with the right MHb containing more neurons than its left counterpart. Additionally, it shows that chronic stress induces a bilateral atrophy of both the MHb and the lateral habenula (LHb). This atrophy was accompanied by a reduction of the number of neurons in the right MHb and the number of glial cells in the bilateral LHb, but not by changes in the dendritic arbors of multipolar neurons. Importantly, these structural changes were correlated with elevated levels of serum corticosterone and increased anxious-like behavior in stressed animals. To further assess the role of the habenula in stress-related anxiety, bilateral lesions of the LHb were performed; interestingly, in lesioned animals the chronic stress protocol did not trigger increases in circulating corticosterone or anxious-like behavior. This study highlights the role of the habenula in the stress responses and how its sub-regions are structurally impacted by chronic stress with physiological and behavioral consequences.

Published in: Science Direct


Jacinto, LR; Mata, R; Novais, A; Marques, F; Sousa, N

Publication Information:

Volume 289, March 2017, Pages 46-54