Stress and corticosteroids dynamically modulate the expression of synaptic plasticity at glutamatergic synapses in the developed brain. Together with alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid receptors (AMPAR), N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDAR) are critical mediators of synaptic function and are essential for the induction of many forms of synaptic plasticity. Regulation of NMDAR function by cortisol/corticosterone (CORT) may be fundamental to the effects of stress on synaptic plasticity. Recent reports of the efficacy of NMDAR antagonists in treating certain stress-associated psychopathologies further highlight the importance of understanding the regulation of NMDAR function by CORT. Knowledge of how corticosteroids regulate NMDAR function within the adult brain is relatively sparse, perhaps due to a common belief that NMDAR function is stable in the adult brain. We review recent results from our laboratory and others demonstrating dynamic regulation of NMDAR function by CORT in the adult brain. In addition, we consider the issue of how differences in the early life environment may program differential sensitivity to modulation of NMDAR function by CORT and how this may influence synaptic function during stress. Findings from these studies demonstrate that NMDAR function in the adult hippocampus remains sensitive to even brief exposures to CORT and that the capacity for modulation of NMDAR may be programmed, in part, by the early life environment. Modulation of NMDAR function may contribute to dynamic regulation of synaptic plasticity and adaptation in the face of stress, however, enhanced NMDAR function may be implicated in mechanisms of stress-related psychopathologies including depression.
Keywords: corticosteroid receptor; electrophysiology; learning and memory; receptor trafficking; stress; synaptic plasticity.