In response to stress, the brain activates several neuropeptide-secreting systems. This eventually leads to the release of adrenal corticosteroid hormones, which subsequently feed back on the brain and bind to two types of nuclear receptor that act as transcriptional regulators. By targeting many genes, corticosteroids function in a binary fashion, and serve as a master switch in the control of neuronal and network responses that underlie behavioural adaptation. In genetically predisposed individuals, an imbalance in this binary control mechanism can introduce a bias towards stress-related brain disease after adverse experiences. New candidate susceptibility genes that serve as markers for the prediction of vulnerable phenotypes are now being identified.