Glucocorticoid receptors in major depression: relevance to pathophysiology and treatment

Biol Psychiatry. 2001 Mar 1;49(5):391-404. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(00)01088-x.


Hyperactivity of the hypothalamic--pituitary--adrenal (HPA) axis has been reliably observed in patients with major depression. One of the primary features of this HPA axis hyperactivity is reduced sensitivity to the inhibitory effects of the glucocorticoid dexamethasone on the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol during the dexamethasone suppression test and, more recently, the dexamethasone--corticotropin-releasing hormone test. Because the effects of glucocorticoids are mediated by intracellular receptors including, most notably, the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), a number of studies have considered the possibility that the number and/or function of GRs are reduced in depressed patients. Moreover, whether antidepressants act by reversing these putative GR changes has been examined. The extant literature on GR receptors in major depression was reviewed along with studies examining the impact of antidepressants on the GR. The data support the hypothesis that the function of the GR is reduced in major depression in the absence of clear evidence of decreased GR expression. The data also indicate that some antidepressants have direct effects on the GR, leading to enhanced GR function and increased GR expression. Hypotheses regarding the mechanism of these receptor changes involve relevant second messenger pathways that regulate GR function. The findings indicate that the GR is an important molecular target in major depression. Further elucidation of the biochemical and molecular mechanisms involved in GR changes in major depression is an exciting frontier that will no doubt lead to new insights into the pathophysiology and treatment of affective disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / physiopathology
  • Dexamethasone
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Dexamethasone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone