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J Affect Disord. 2013 Sep 5;150(2):551-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.01.038. Epub 2013 Feb 28.

A randomized, placebo-controlled proof-of-concept, crossover trial of phenytoin for hydrocortisone-induced declarative memory changes.

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Department of Psychiatry, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX 75390-8849, USA.



Corticosteroid excess is associated with declarative memory impairment and hippocampal atrophy. These findings are clinically important because approximately 1% of the population receives prescription corticosteroids at any time, and major depressive disorder is associated with elevated cortisol levels and hippocampal atrophy. In animals, hippocampal changes with corticosteroids are blocked by phenytoin. The objective of the current study was to extend these preclinical findings to humans. We examined whether phenytoin attenuated the effects of hydrocortisone on declarative memory. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) assessed task-related hippocampal activation.


A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject crossover study was conducted in 17 healthy adult volunteers. Participants received hydrocortisone (2.5 days), phenytoin (3.5 days), both medications together, or placebo, with 21-day washouts between conditions. Differences between treatments were estimated using a mixed-effects repeated measures analysis.


Fifteen participants had data from at least two treatment conditions and were used in the analysis. Basal cortisol levels negatively correlated with fMRI BOLD activation in the para-hippocampus with a similar trend observed in the hippocampus. Decrease in declarative memory with hydrocortisone was blocked with concomitant phenytoin administration. Relative to the placebo condition, a significant decrease in hippocampal BOLD activation was observed with hydrocortisone and phenytoin alone, and the two medications in combination. Declarative memory did not show significant correlations with hippocampal activation.


The modest sample size, which limited our statistical power, was a limitation.


Findings from this pilot study suggest phenytoin attenuated effects of corticosteroids memory in humans, but potentiated the reduction in hippocampal activation.


Anticonvulsant; Cognition; Corticosteroid; Hippocampus; fMRI

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