Journal of Endocrinology

 Corticosteroids and the brain

The brain is continuously exposed to varying levels of adrenal corticosteroid hormones such as corticosterone in rodents and cortisol in humans. Natural fluctuations occur due to ultradian and circadian variations or are caused by exposure to stressful situations. Brain cells express two types of corticosteroid receptors, i.e. mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors, which differ in distribution and affinity. These receptors can mediate both rapid non-genomic and slow gene-mediated neuronal actions. As a consequence of these factors, natural (e.g. stress-induced) shifts in corticosteroid level are associated with a complex mosaic of time- and region-dependent changes in neuronal activity. A series of experiments in humans and rodents have revealed that these time- and region-dependent cellular characteristics are also reflected in distinct cognitive patterns after stress. Thus, directly after a peak of corticosteroids, attention and vigilance are increased, and areas involved in emotional responses and simple behavioral strategies show enhanced activity. In the aftermath of stress, areas involved in higher cognitive functions become activated allowing individuals to link stressful events to the specific context and to store information for future use. Both phases of the brain’s response to stress are important to face a continuously changing environment, promoting adaptation at the short as well as long term. We argue that a balanced response during the two phases is essential for resilience. This balance may become compromised after repeated stress exposure, particularly in genetically vulnerable individuals and aggravate disease manifestation. This not only applies to psychiatric disorders but also to neurological diseases such as epilepsy.