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Vol. 84, No. 4, 2006
Issue release date: February 2007
Neuroendocrinology 2006;84:244–254

Neuroactive Steroids in Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Clinical Studies

Eser D. · Schüle C. · Baghai T.C. · Romeo E. · Rupprecht R.
aDepartment of Psychiatry, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, Germany; bDepartment of Neuroscience, Tor Vergata University, IRCCS Santa Lucia, Rome, Italy

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Certain neuroactive steroids modulate ligand-gated ion channels via non-genomic mechanisms. Especially 3α-reduced pregnane steroids are potent positive allosteric modulators of the γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptor. During major depression, there is a disequilibrium of 3α-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 nonpharmacological 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 steroid concentrations 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 to those seen in depression. However, during experimentally induced panic induction either with cholecystokinine-tetrapeptide or sodium lactate, there was a pronounced decline in the concentrations of 3α-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 3α,5α-tetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone. The modulation of GABAA 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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