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Psychiatry Res. 1999 Dec 13;89(1):1-20.

Hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal cortical responses to low-dose physostigmine and arginine vasopressin administration: sex differences between major depressives and matched control subjects.

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  • 1Center for Neurosciences Research, MCP Hahnemann University School of Medicine, Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA 15212-4772, USA.


Of heuristic value in understanding the neurochemistry of major depression is whether the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis hyperactivity that occurs in this illness can be related to putative neurotransmitter dysfunction(s). Cholinergic neurotransmission stimulates hypothalamic corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) secretion, both of which stimulate pituitary corticotropin (ACTH) secretion, but whether the HPA axis in humans is activated only by doses of cholinergic agonists that produce noxious side effects remains controversial. To test the hypothesis of increased cholinergic sensitivity in major depression, physostigmine (PHYSO), a reversible cholinesterase inhibitor, was administered to patients and control subjects at a dose that elevated plasma ACTH, cortisol, and AVP concentrations but produced few or no side effects. Exogenous AVP also was administered to determine if it would augment the effect of low-dose PHYSO on the HPA axis. Twelve premenopausal or estrogen-replaced female major depressives, 12 individually matched female control subjects, eight male major depressives, and eight matched male control subjects underwent four test sessions 5-7 days apart: PHYSO (8 microg/kg IV), AVP (0.08 U/kg IM), PHYSO + AVP, and saline control. Serial blood samples were taken before and after pharmacologic challenge and analyzed for ACTH1-39, cortisol, and AVP. Estradiol and testosterone were also measured at each test session. PHYSO (8 microg/kg) significantly increased plasma ACTH, cortisol, and AVP, while producing no side effects in approximately half the subjects and predominantly mild side effects in the other half. These hormone increases following PHYSO occurred primarily in the female depressives and the male control subjects and were not significantly related to the presence or absence of side effects. The greater the ACTH and AVP responses to PHYSO, the stronger their correlation, suggesting that AVP may have been acting as a secretagogue for ACTH. Administered AVP significantly increased the secretion of ACTH in the patients and control subjects to a similar degree, and AVP given after PHYSO did not augment the HPA axis response to a greater degree in the depressives than in the control subjects. Plasma estradiol and testosterone were within the normal range for all four groups of subjects and were not significantly related to their HPA axis hormone responses. The study results support the hypothesis of heightened cholinergic sensitivity in premenopausal female, but not in male, patients with major depression. The low dose of PHYSO used may represent a useful paradigm for central cholinergic stimulation of the HPA axis.

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