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Neuroscience. 2006;138(3):1041-8. Epub 2005 Nov 28.

Neuroactive steroids as modulators of depression and anxiety.

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Department of Psychiatry, Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, Germany.


Certain neuroactive steroids modulate ligand-gated ion channels via non-genomic mechanisms. Especially 3alpha-reduced pregnane steroids are potent positive allosteric modulators of the GABA type A-receptor. During major depression there is a dysequilibrium of 3alpha-reduced neuroactive steroids, which is corrected by clinically effective pharmacological treatment. To investigate whether these alterations are a general principle of successful antidepressant treatment we studied the impact of non-pharmacological treatment options on neuroactive steroid concentrations during major depression. Neither partial sleep deprivation, transcranial magnetic stimulation nor electroconvulsive therapy affected neuroactive steroid levels irrespectively of the response to these treatments. These studies suggest that the changes in neuroactive steroids observed after antidepressant pharmacotherapy more likely reflect distinct pharmacological properties of antidepressants rather than the clinical response. In patients with panic disorder changes in neuroactive steroid composition have been observed opposite of those seen in depression. These changes may represent counterregulatory mechanisms against the occurrence of spontaneous panic attacks. However, during experimental panic induction with either cholecystokinin-tetrapeptide or sodium lactate there was a pronounced decline in the concentrations of 3alpha-reduced neuroactive steroids in patients with panic disorder, which might result in a decreased GABAergic tone. In contrast, no changes in neuroactive steroid concentrations could be observed in healthy controls with the exception of 3alpha, 5alpha-tetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone, allotetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone. The modulation of GABA type A-receptors by neuroactive steroids might contribute to the pathophysiology of depression and anxiety disorders and might offer new targets for the development of novel anxiolytic compounds.

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