Neurotoxicity of glucocorticoids in the primate brain

Horm Behav. 1994 Dec;28(4):336-48. doi: 10.1006/hbeh.1994.1030.


Severe and prolonged physical and psychological stress is known to cause brain damage; long-term torture victims in prison have later developed psychiatric disorders and cerebral cortical atrophy observed in CT scans (Jensen, Genefke, Hyldebrandt, Pedersen, Petersen, and Weile, 1982). In nonhuman primates, we observed degeneration and depletion of the hippocampal neurons in African green monkeys that had been severely abused by cagemates and died with complications of multiple gastric ulcers and adrenal cortical hyperplasia (Uno, Tarara, Else, Suleman and Sapolsky, 1989). In our previous studies the administration of dexamethasone (DEX) (5 mg/kg) to pregnant rhesus monkeys at 132 to 133 days of gestation induced degeneration and depletion of the hippocampal pyramidal and dentate granular neurons in the brains of 135-gestation-day fetuses, and these changes were retained in the brains of fetuses at near term, 165 days of gestation (Uno, Lohmiller, Thieme, Kemnitz, Engle, Roecker, and Farrell, 1990). We also found that implantation of a cortisol pellet in the vicinity of the hippocampus in adult vervet monkeys induced degeneration of the CA3 pyramidal neurons and their dendritic branches (Sapolsky, Uno, Rebert, and Finch, 1990). Thus, hippocampal pyramidal neurons containing a high concentration of glucocorticoid receptors appear to be highly vulnerable to either hypercortisolemia caused by severe stress or to exposure to exogenous glucocorticoids. To study the long-term postnatal sequelae of prenatal brain damage, eight rhesus monkeys were treated with either DEX (5 mg/kg), 5 animals, or vehicle, 3 animals, at 132 to 133 days of gestation. After natural birth, all animals lived with their mothers for 1 year. At 9 months of age, we found that DEX-treated animals had significantly high plasma cortisol at both base and post-stress (isolation) levels compared to age-matched vehicle-treated animals. Magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the brain at 20 months of age showed an approximately 30% reduction in size and segmental volumes of the hippocampus in DEX-treated compared to vehicle-treated animals. Measurements of whole brain volume by MRI showed no significant differences between DEX and vehicle groups. Prenatal administration of a potent glucocorticoid (DEX) induced an irreversible deficiency of the hippocampal neurons and high plasma cortisol at the circadian baseline and post-stress levels in juvenile rhesus monkeys. These results suggest that the hippocampus mediates negative feedback of cortisol release; a lack or deficiency of the hippocampal neurons attenuates this feedback resulting in hypercortisolemia.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / pathology
  • Dexamethasone / toxicity
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Glucocorticoids / toxicity*
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Dexamethasone
  • Hydrocortisone