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Endocrinology. 2014 Aug;155(8):2754-69. doi: 10.1210/en.2014-1048. Epub 2014 May 14.

From receptor balance to rational glucocorticoid therapy.

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Department of Medical Pharmacology, Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research, Leiden University and Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Leiden University Medical Center, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands.


Corticosteroids secreted as end product of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis act like a double-edged sword in the brain. The hormones coordinate appraisal processes and decision making during the initial phase of a stressful experience and promote subsequently cognitive performance underlying the management of stress adaptation. This action exerted by the steroids on the initiation and termination of the stress response is mediated by 2 related receptor systems: mineralocorticoid receptors (MRs) and glucocorticoid receptors (GRs). The receptor types are unevenly distributed but colocalized in abundance in neurons of the limbic brain to enable these complementary hormone actions. This contribution starts from a historical perspective with the observation that phasic occupancy of GR during ultradian rhythmicity is needed to maintain responsiveness to corticosteroids. Then, during stress, initially MR activation enhances excitability of limbic networks that are engaged in appraisal and emotion regulation. Next, the rising hormone concentration occupies GR, resulting in reallocation of energy to limbic-cortical circuits with a role in behavioral adaptation and memory storage. Upon MR:GR imbalance, dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis occurs, which can enhance an individual's vulnerability. Imbalance is characteristic for chronic stress experience and depression but also occurs during exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids. Hence, glucocorticoid psychopathology may develop in susceptible individuals because of suppression of ultradian/circadian rhythmicity and depletion of endogenous corticosterone from brain MR. This knowledge generated from testing the balance hypothesis can be translated to a rational glucocorticoid therapy.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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