Faculty Articles

High-Fidelity Discrete Modeling of the HPA Axis: A Study of Regulatory Plasticity in Biology

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BMC Systems Biology





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BACKGROUND: The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a central regulator of stress response and its dysfunction has been associated with a broad range of complex illnesses including Gulf War Illness (GWI) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Though classical mathematical approaches have been used to model HPA function in isolation, its broad regulatory interactions with immune and central nervous function are such that the biological fidelity of simulations is undermined by the limited availability of reliable parameter estimates.

METHOD: Here we introduce and apply a generalized discrete formalism to recover multiple stable regulatory programs of the HPA axis using little more than connectivity between physiological components. This simple discrete model captures cyclic attractors such as the circadian rhythm by applying generic constraints to a minimal parameter set; this is distinct from Ordinary Differential Equation (ODE) models, which require broad and precise parameter sets. Parameter tuning is accomplished by decomposition of the overall regulatory network into isolated sub-networks that support cyclic attractors. Network behavior is simulated using a novel asynchronous updating scheme that enforces priority with memory within and between physiological compartments.

RESULTS: Consistent with much more complex conventional models of the HPA axis, this parsimonious framework supports two cyclic attractors, governed by higher and lower levels of cortisol respectively. Importantly, results suggest that stress may remodel the stability landscape of this system, favoring migration from one stable circadian cycle to the other. Access to each regime is dependent on HPA axis tone, captured here by the tunable parameters of the multi-valued logic. Likewise, an idealized glucocorticoid receptor blocker alters the regulatory topology such that maintenance of persistently low cortisol levels is rendered unstable, favoring a return to normal circadian oscillation in both cortisol and glucocorticoid receptor expression.

CONCLUSION: These results emphasize the significance of regulatory connectivity alone and how regulatory plasticity may be explored using simple discrete logic and minimal data compared to conventional methods.



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Peer Reviewed

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