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Neurosteroid Biosynthesis in the Human Brain and Its Clinical Implications


Address for correspondence: PD Dr. med. Birgit Stoffel-Wagner, Institut fuer Klinische Biochemie, Universitaet Bonn, Sigmund-Freud-Str. 25, D-53127 Bonn, Germany. Voice: +49-228-2875141; fax: +49-228-2875789


Abstract: This paper summarizes the current knowledge concerning the biosynthesis of neurosteroids in the human brain, the enzymes mediating these reactions, their localization, and the putative effects of neurosteroids. The presence of the steroidogenic enzymes cytochrome P450SCC, aromatase, 5α-reductase, 3α-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, and 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase in the human brain has now been firmly established by molecular biological and biochemical studies. Their presence in the cerebral cortex and in the subcortical white matter indicates that various cell types, either neurons or glial cells, are involved in the biosynthesis of neuroactive steroids in the brain. The following functions are attributed to specific neurosteroids: modulation of GABAA, N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA), nicotinic, muscarinic, serotonin (5-HT3), kainate, glycine and sigma receptors, neuroprotection and induction of neurite outgrowth, dendritic spines, and synaptogenesis. We still do not know whether and how the steroidogenic enzymes are involved in the pathophysiology of the nervous system. The first clinical investigations in humans produced evidence for an involvement of neuroactive steroids in conditions such as fatigue during pregnancy, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression, catamenial epilepsy, and depressive disorders. Further and improved knowledge of the biochemical pathways of neurosteroidogenesis and their actions on the brain may enable new perspectives in the understanding of the physiology of the human brain as well as in the pharmacological treatment of its disturbances.