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A fundamental question in stress research is when the glucocorticoid stress hormone (cortisol in man) stops being neuroprotective and becomes harmful to the brain with negative consequences for cognition and mood. To address this question Section 1 focuses on the action mechanism of glucocorticoids. These hormones act via high and low affinity nuclear receptors, which regulate gene transcription in a coordinate manner. The receptors are expressed abundantly in hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex involved in cognitive processes. In Section 2 hypercortisolism is considered a potential disease factor for about 50% of the patients suffering from major depression. Recent data show that these patients recover within a few days when excess cortisol action is blocked with high doses of an antiglucocorticoid. Section 3 concerns animal models with ‘depression-like’ features of hypercorticism generated by manipulation of gene X environment inputs. Using gene expression profiling technology in the hippocampal transcriptome of these animals we identified about 700 potential targets for antidepressants out of 30 000 detectable gene products. One of our models is based on early life programming of the stress system. Rats exposed as pups to maternal deprivation display at senescence an enhanced individual difference in cognitive performance. The maternally deprived senescent animals age either successfully or become senile, at the expense of the average performance of non-deprived controls. The essay is concluded with the notion that the new generation of antidepressants ameliorates specific psychic dysfunctions (e.g. cognitive performance) linked to aberrant stress hormone action in discrete brain regions.
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