OBJECTIVES: Changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system are characteristic of depression. Because the effects of glucocorticoids are mediated by intracellular receptors including, most notably, the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), several studies have examined the number and/or function of GRs in depressed patients. METHODS: Review scientific evidences have consistently demonstrated that GR function is impaired in major depression, resulting in reduced GR-mediated negative feedback on the HPA axis and increased production and secretion of CRF in various brain regions postulated to be involved in the causality of depression. RESULTS: This article summarizes the literature on GR in depression and on the impact of antidepressants on the GR in clinical and preclinical studies, and supports the concept that impaired GR signalling is a key mechanism in the pathogenesis of depression, in the absence of clear evidence of decreased GR expression. The data also indicate that antidepressants have direct effects on the GR, leading to enhanced GR function and increased GR expression. Although the effects of antidepressants on glucocorticoid hormones and their receptors are relevant for the therapeutic action of these drugs, the molecular mechanisms underlying these effects are unclear. We propose that antidepressants in humans could inhibit steroid transporters localised on the blood-brain barrier and in neurones, like the multidrug resistance p-glycoprotein, and thus increase the access of cortisol to the brain and the glucocorticoid-mediated negative feedback on the HPA axis. CONCLUSION: Enhanced cortisol action in the brain might prove to be a successful approach to maximise therapeutic antidepressant effects. Hypotheses regarding the mechanism of these receptor changes involve non-steroid compounds that regulate GR function via second messenger pathways. Research in this field will lead to new insights into the pathophysiology and treatment of affective disorders.
Stress; Depression; Hypothalamus; Hidrocortisone; Antidepressive agents; Neuroendocrinology; Cytokines; Psychoneuroimmunology