Neurosteroidogenesis: relevance to neurosteroid actions in brain and modulation by psychotropic drugs

Crit Rev Neurobiol. 2004;16(1-2):67-74. doi: 10.1615/critrevneurobiol.v16.i12.70.


Neurosteroids--i.e., steroid produced in brain ex novo or through metabolism of precursors--affect neuronal and brain functions through genomic and nongenomic mechanisms, depending on their molecular structure. Among neurosteroids, 3alpha-hydroxylated, 5alpha-reduced metabolites of progesterone (3alpha-hydroxy,5alpha-pregnan-20one/3alpha,5alpha-THP) and deoxycorticosterone (3alpha,21-dihydroxy,5alpha-pregnan-20one/3alpha,5alpha-THDOC) are positive allosteric modulators of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) action at GABAA receptors. In rodents, a reduction of their endogenous brain concentrations rapidly lowers the potency of GABA in eliciting GABAA receptor-mediated inhibitory postsynaptic currents. This effect is related to anxiety-like behavior, increased aggression, and a reduced sensitivity to the loss of righting reflex induced by GABAA receptor agonist or positive modulators. Conversely, enhancement of 3alpha,5alpha-THP or 3alpha,5alpha-THDOC brain content results in anxiolysis, sedation/hypnosis, anticonvulsant, and anesthetic action. Different classes of psychotropic drugs--i.e., antidepressants, selected atypical antipsychotics, ethanol, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid--increase neurosteroid concentrations in brain, and these increases may be relevant to their pharmacological actions. Drug-induced increases of neurosteroids in rodent brain are often associated with elevation of their plasma content, such that alterations of plasma steroid concentrations are assumed to reflect parallel changes in brain. Nevertheless, brain neurosteroid concentrations are uneven across various regions, and the dose-dependence of their response to a pharmacological challenge shows brain-regional differences as well. These observations are consistent with the present knowledge on the distribution of steroidogenic enzymes in brain--they show not only a brain region, but also a cell-specific expression that may spatially and temporally determine the local concentrations of specific neurosteroids, either produced ex novo or through metabolism of steroid precursors that reach the brain through blood.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthetics, Intravenous / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Antipsychotic Agents / pharmacology
  • Brain Chemistry / drug effects*
  • Clozapine / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / biosynthesis*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Psychotropic Drugs / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, GABA-A / biosynthesis
  • Receptors, GABA-A / genetics
  • Sodium Oxybate / pharmacology
  • Steroids / biosynthesis*


  • Anesthetics, Intravenous
  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Steroids
  • Sodium Oxybate
  • Clozapine