Annual Research Review: The neurobiology and physiology of resilience and adaptation across the life course


  • Ilia N. Karatsoreos,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
    • Correspondence

      Ilia N. Karatsoreos, Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA; Email:

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  • Bruce S. McEwen

    1. Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA
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This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum Volume 54, Issue 7, 812, Article first published online: 24 June 2013

  • Conflicts of interest statement: No conflicts declared.



Adaptation is key to survival. An organism must adapt to environmental challenges in order to be able to thrive in the environment in which they find themselves. Resilience can be thought of as a measure of the ability of an organism to adapt, and to withstand challenges to its stability. In higher animals, the brain is a key player in this process of adaptation and resilience, and through a process known as “allostasis” can obtain “stability through change”; protecting homeostasis in the face of stressors in the environment. Mediators of allostasis, such as glucocorticoids, can cause changes in the structure and function of neural circuits, clearly impacting behavior. How developmental stage interacts with stress and leads to long-lasting changes is a key question addressed in this review.

Scope and Methods

We discuss the concept of allostasis, its role in resilience, the neural and physiological systems mediating these responses, the modulatory role of development, and the consequences for adult functioning. We present this in the context of mediators the brain and body engage to protect against threats to homeostasis. The review has been informed by comprehensive searches on PubMed and Scopus through November 2012.


Stressors in the environment can have long lasting effects on development, depending upon the stage of life at which they are experienced. As such, adverse childhood experiences can alter resilience of individuals, making it more difficult for them to respond normally to adverse situations in adulthood, but the brain maintains the capacity to re-enter a more plastic state where such effects can be mitigated.


The brain regulates responses that allow for adaptation to challenges in the environment. The capacity of the brain and body to withstand challenges to stability can be considered as “resilience”. While adverse childhood experiences can have long-term negative consequences, under the right circumstances, the brain can re-enter plastic states, and negative outcomes may be mitigated, even later in life.