Glucocorticoids serve as key stress response hormones that facilitate stress coping. However, sustained glucocorticoid exposure is associated with adverse consequences on the brain, in particular within the hippocampus. Chronic glucocorticoid exposure evokes neuronal cell damage and dendritic atrophy, reduces hippocampal neurogenesis and impairs synaptic plasticity. Glucocorticoids also alter expression and signaling of the neurotrophin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Since BDNF is known to promote neuroplasticity, enhance cell survival, increase hippocampal neurogenesis and cellular excitability, it has been hypothesized that specific adverse effects of glucocorticoids may be mediated by attenuating BDNF expression and signaling. The purpose of this review is to summarize the current state of literature examining the influence of glucocorticoids on BDNF, and to address whether specific effects of glucocorticoids arise through perturbation of BDNF signaling. We integrate evidence of glucocorticoid regulation of BDNF at multiple levels, spanning from the well-documented glucocorticoid-induced changes in BDNF mRNA to studies examining alterations in BDNF receptor-mediated signaling. Further, we delineate potential lines of future investigation to address hitherto unexplored aspects of the influence of glucocorticoids on BDNF. Finally, we discuss the current understanding of the contribution of BDNF to the modulation of structural and functional plasticity by glucocorticoids, in particular in the context of the hippocampus. Understanding the mechanistic crosstalk between glucocorticoids and BDNF holds promise for the identification of potential therapeutic targets for disorders associated with the dysfunction of stress hormone pathways.
Copyright © 2012 IBRO. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.