Interpreting Stress Responses during Routine Toxicity Studies:A Review of the Biology, Impact, and Assessment

Nancy E. Everds, Paul W. Snyder, Keith L. Bailey, Brad Bolon, Dianne M. Creasy, George L. Foley, Thomas J. Rosol, Teresa Sellers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Stress often occurs during toxicity studies. The perception of sensory stimuli as stressful primarily results in catecholamine release and activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis to increase serum glucocorticoid concentrations. Downstream effects of these neuroendocrine signals may include decreased total body weights or body weight gain; food consumption and activity; altered organ weights (e.g., thymus, spleen, adrenal); lymphocyte depletion in thymus and spleen; altered circulating leukocyte counts (e.g., increased neutrophils with decreased lymphocytes and eosinophils); and altered reproductive functions. Typically, only some of these findings occur in a given study. Stress responses should be interpreted as secondary (indirect) rather than primary (direct) test article–related findings. Determining whether effects are the result of stress requires a weight-of-evidence approach. The evaluation and interpretation of routinely collected data (standard in-life, clinical pathology, and anatomic pathology endpoints) are appropriate and generally sufficient to assess whether or not changes are secondary to stress. The impact of possible stress-induced effects on data interpretation can partially be mitigated by toxicity study designs that use appropriate control groups (e.g., cohorts treated with vehicle and subjected to the same procedures as those dosed with test article), housing that minimizes isolation and offers environmental enrichment, and experimental procedures that minimize stress and sampling and analytical bias. This article is a comprehensive overview of the biological aspects of the stress response, beginning with a Summary (Section 1) and an Introduction (Section 2) that describes the historical and conventional methods used to characterize acute and chronic stress responses. These sections are followed by reviews of the primary systems and parameters that regulate and/or are influenced by stress, with an emphasis on parameters evaluated in toxicity studies: In-life Procedures (Section 3), Nervous System (Section 4), Endocrine System (Section 5), Reproductive System (Section 6), Clinical Pathology (Section 7), and Immune System (Section 8). The paper concludes (Section 9) with a brief discussion on Minimizing Stress-Related Effects (9.1.), and a final section explaining why Parameters routinely measured are appropriate for assessing the role of stress in toxicology studies (9.2.).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)560-614
Number of pages55
JournalToxicologic Pathology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • endocrine system
  • epinephrine
  • glucocorticoid
  • hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis
  • immune system
  • stress
  • toxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Molecular Biology
  • Toxicology
  • Cell Biology

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