Neurosteroids are a subclass of steroids that can be synthesized in the central nervous system independently of peripheral sources. Several neurosteroids influence cognitive functions. Indeed, in senescent animals we have previously demonstrated a significant correlation between the cerebral concentration of pregnenolone sulfate (PREG-S) and cognitive performance. Indeed, rats with memory impairments exhibited low PREG-S concentrations compared to animals with correct memory performance. Furthermore, these memory deficits can be reversed by intracerebral infusions of PREG-S. Neurotransmitter systems modulated by this neurosteroid were unknown until our recent report of an enhancement of acetylcholine (ACh) release in basolateral amygdala, cortex, and hippocampus induced by central administrations of PREG-S. Central ACh neurotransmission is involved in the regulation of memory processes and is affected in normal aging and in human neurodegenerative pathologies like Alzheimer's disease. ACh neurotransmission is also involved in the modulation of sleep-wakefulness cycle and relationships between paradoxical sleep and memory are well documented in the literature. PREG-S infused at the level of ACh cell bodies induces a dramatic increase of paradoxical sleep in young animals. Cognitive dysfunctions, particularly those observed in Alzheimer's disease, have also been related to alterations of cerebral plasticity. Among these mechanisms, neurogenesis has been recently studied. Preliminary data suggest that PREG-S central infusions dramatically increase neurogenesis. Taken together these data suggest that PREG-S can influence cognitive processes, particularly in senescent subjects, through a modulation of ACh neurotransmission associated with paradoxical sleep modifications; furthermore our recent data suggest a role for neurosteroids in the modulation of hippocampal neurogenesis.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.