Coping strategies, a matter of neuron

In response to stressors, individuals exhibit different coping styles, each characterized by a set of behavioral, physiological, and psychological responses. The active behavioral style refers to efforts to blunt the impact of stressors and is related to resilience to stress, whereas the passive behavioral style refers to efforts to avoid confronting stressors and is associated with vulnerability to psychopathology. This is a well-known scientific question, shortly called the fight or flight. However, the biological basis of the brain has not been fully understood.

Recently, the research team led by Prof. ZHOU Jianging from University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) of CAS, found that prefrontal corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neuron are recruited during behavioral challenges. Manipulation of CRF neurons motivates the selection of behavioral styles under challenges. They also demonstrated that activation of CRF neurons promotes persistent stress-resistant behaviors.

The research article entitled “Prefrontal Cortex Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons Control Behavioral Style Selection under Challenging Situations” was published in Neuron on February 25th. In the research, by using calcium imaging in vivo and cell-specific targeted viral-mediated gain- or loss-of-function tools, such as pharmacogenetic designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs (DREADD) approaches, researchers investigated how mPFC CRF neurons regulate behavioral style selection during various stress in CRF transgenic mice. The results showed that genetic ablation or chemogenetic inhibition of dorsal mPFC (dmPFC) CRF neurons increased immobility under the tail-suspension and forced-swimming challenges and induced social avoidance behavior, whereas activation had the opposite effect on the same measures. Furthermore, increasing CRF neuronal activity promoted durable resilience to repeated social defeat stress. These results uncover a critical role of mPFC CRF interneurons in bidirectionally controlling motivated behavioral style selection under stress.

The present findings may point to novel therapeutic targets such as neural circuit modulation for treatment of major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This figure shows a kind of Janus image consistent with the behavioral representation of the mice in the experiment. In the picture, the red mouse that holds a sword (CRF neuron) is strong, while the blue mouse that does not touch the sword (CRF neuron) is fearful. (Image by WANG Jing, CHEN Xiaodong and XU Qizhi)

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