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Keywords:

  • adverse effects;
  • central nervous system;
  • natural glucocorticoids;
  • neuropsychic effects;
  • synthetic glucocorticoids

Natural glucocorticoids (NGC) physiologically modulate body homeostasis and coordinate adaptive responses to stress, involving almost all organs and tissues, including brain. Since their therapeutic availability, synthetic GC (SGC) have been successfully prescribed for a variety of diseases. Mounting evidence, however, demonstrated pleiotropic adverse effects (AE), including central nervous system (CNS) disturbances, which are often misdiagnosed or underestimated. The aim of the present study was therefore to review and discuss the CNS effects of both NGC and SGC. A detailed search was carried out of the available literature using the PubMed (US National Library of Medicine) database. Cortisolemia plays a crucial role in control of behavior, cognition, mood, and early life programming of stress reactivity. Hypercortisolemia or SGC treatments may induce behavioral, psychic and cognitive disturbances, due to functional and, over time, structural alterations in specific brain target areas. These AE are generally dose and time dependent (infrequent at prednisone-equivalent doses <20 mg/day) and usually reversible. Pediatric patients are particularly susceptible. Behavioral changes, including feeding and sleeping modifications, are common. Psychic AE are unpredictable and heterogeneous, usually mild/moderate, severe in 5–10% of cases. Manic symptoms have been mostly associated with short SGC courses, and depressive disorder with long-term treatments. Suicidality has been reported. Cognitive AE peculiarly affect declarative memory performance. Physiologic levels of NGC are essential for efficient brain functions. Otherwise, hypercortisolemia and SGC treatments may cause dose-/time-dependent neuropsychic AE and, over time, structural alterations in brain target areas. Clinicians should carefully monitor patients, especially children and/or when administering high doses SGC.