Background: Disturbances of the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the serotonin system are commonly found in depressive illness. Studying the effect of stress on these two neurobiological systems may give us important clues into the pathophysiology of affective illness and help us understand how stress and mood disorders are related.
Methods: We studied the effect of chronic unpredictable stress and antidepressant treatment on serotonin 1A (5-HT1A), glucocorticoid (GR), anti mineralocorticoid (MR) receptor levels in rat hippocampus, using in situ hybridization and receptor autoradiography. We also used in situ hybridization to quantify hippocampal 5-HT1A, GR, and MR messenger (mRNA) levels in a small group of suicide victims with a history of depression, compared to matched controls (n = 6).
Results: We found that rats subjected to chronic unpredictable stress showed a significant elevation of basal plasma corticosterone compared to nonstressed rats. Chronic stress also caused a decrease in 5-HT1A mRNA and binding in the hippocampus. In addition, chronic stress produced alterations on the MR/GR mRNA ratio in this same region. The decreases in 5-HT1A mRNA and binding, as well as the MR/GR alterations, were prevented in animals that received imipramine or desipramine antidepressant treatment. Zimelidine was unable to reverse stress-induced increases in corticosterone, and was only partially successful in preventing the stress-induced receptor changes in the hippocampus. Suicide victims with a history of depression showed changes that were very similar to the changes found in chronic stress.
Conclusions: Alterations in hippocampal 5-HT1A levels and in the MR/GR balance may be one of the mechanisms by which stress may trigger and/or maintain depressive episodes.