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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Sep-Nov;32(8-10):1062-78. Epub 2007 Oct 24.

Neuroactive steroids modulate HPA axis activity and cerebral brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein levels in adult male rats.

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  • 1Universit√© Montpellier 2, F-34095 Montpellier, France.


Depression is characterized by hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis hyperactivity. In this major mood disorder, neurosteroids and neurotrophins, particularly brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), seem to be implicated and have some antidepressant effects. BDNF is highly involved in regulation of the HPA axis, whereas neurosteroids effects have never been clearly established. In this systematic in vivo study, we showed that the principal neuroactive steroids, namely dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), pregnenolone (PREG) and their sulfate esters (DHEA-S and PREG-S), along with allopregnanolone (ALLO), stimulated HPA axis activity, while also modulating central BDNF contents. In detail, DHEA, DHEA-S, PREG, PREG-S and ALLO induced corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and/or arginine vasopressin (AVP) synthesis and release at the hypothalamic level, thus enhancing plasma adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) and corticosterone (CORT) concentrations. This stimulation of the HPA axis occurred concomitantly with BDNF modifications at the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus levels. We showed that these neurosteroids induced rapid effects, probably via neurotransmitter receptors and delayed effects perhaps after metabolization in other neuroactive steroids. We highlighted that they had peripheral effects directly at the adrenal level by inducing CORT release, certainly after estrogenic metabolization. In addition, we showed that, at the dose used, only DHEA, DHEA-S and PREG-S had antidepressant effects. In conclusion, these results highly suggest that part of the HPA axis and antidepressant effects of neuroactive steroids could be mediated by BDNF, particularly at the amygdala level. They also suggest that neurosteroids effects on central BDNF could partially explain the trophic properties of these molecules.

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