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Concept: Pregnenolone


The calcium channel of sperm (CatSper) is essential for sperm hyperactivated motility and fertility. The steroid hormone progesterone activates CatSper of human sperm via binding to the serine hydrolase ABHD2. However, steroid specificity of ABHD2 has not been evaluated. Here, we explored whether steroid hormones to which human spermatozoa are exposed in the male and female genital tract influence CatSper activation via modulation of ABHD2. The results show that testosterone, estrogen, and hydrocortisone did not alter basal CatSper currents, whereas the neurosteroid pregnenolone sulfate exerted similar effects as progesterone, likely binding to the same site. However, physiological concentrations of testosterone and hydrocortisone inhibited CatSper activation by progesterone. Additionally, testosterone antagonized the effect of pregnenolone sulfate. We have also explored whether steroid-like molecules, such as the plant triterpenoids pristimerin and lupeol, affect sperm fertility. Interestingly, both compounds competed with progesterone and pregnenolone sulfate and significantly reduced CatSper activation by either steroid. Furthermore, pristimerin and lupeol considerably diminished hyperactivation of capacitated spermatozoa. These results indicate that (i) pregnenolone sulfate together with progesterone are the main steroids that activate CatSper and (ii) pristimerin and lupeol can act as contraceptive compounds by averting sperm hyperactivation, thus preventing fertilization.

Concepts: Cholesterol, Sperm, Estrogen, Testosterone, Spermatozoon, Progesterone, Steroid, Pregnenolone


NMDA receptors (NMDARs) mediate fast excitatory synaptic transmission and play a critical role in synaptic plasticity associated with learning and memory. NMDAR hypoactivity has been implicated in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, and clinical studies reveal reduced negative symptoms of schizophrenia with a dose of pregnenolone that elevates serum levels of the neuroactive steroid pregnenolone sulfate (PregS). This report describes a novel process of delayed onset potentiation whereby PregS approximately doubles the cell’s response to NMDA via a mechanism that is pharmacologically and kinetically distinct from rapid positive allosteric modulation by PregS. The number of functional cell surface NMDARs in cortical neurons increases 60 -100% within 10 min of exposure to PregS as shown by surface biotinylation and affinity purification. Delayed onset potentiation is reversible and selective for expressed receptors containing the NR2A or NR2B, but not NR2C or NR2D, subunits. Moreover, substitution of NR2B J-K helices and M4 domain with the corresponding region of NR2D ablates rapid allosteric potentiation of the NMDA response by PregS but not delayed onset potentiation. This demonstrates that the initial phase of rapid positive allosteric modulation is not a first step in NMDAR upregulation. Delayed onset potentiation by PregS occurs via a non- canonical, pertussis toxin sensitive G-protein coupled and Ca(2+) dependent mechanism that is independent of NMDAR ion channel activation. Further investigation into the sequelae for PregS stimulated trafficking of NMDARs to the neuronal cell surface may uncover a new target for the pharmacological treatment of disorders in which NMDAR hypofunction has been implicated.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Action potential, Synaptic plasticity, Long-term depression, NMDA receptor, Membrane potential, Long-term potentiation, Pregnenolone


Local production of neurosteroids such as progesterone and allopregnanolone confers neuroprotection in central nervous system (CNS) inflammatory diseases. The mitochondrial translocator protein (TSPO) performs a rate-limiting step in the conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone and its steroid derivatives. Previous studies have shown that TSPO is upregulated in microglia and astroglia during neural inflammation, and radiolabelled TSPO ligands such as PK11195 have been used to image and localize injury in the CNS. Recent studies have shown that modulating TSPO activity with pharmacological ligands such as etifoxine can initiate the production of neurosteroids locally in the injured CNS. In this study, we examined the effects of etifoxine, a clinically available anxiolytic drug, in the development and progression of mouse experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an experimental model for multiple sclerosis (MS). Our results showed that etifoxine attenuated EAE severity when administered before the development of clinical signs and also improved symptomatic recovery when administered at the peak of the disease. In both cases, recovery was correlated with diminished inflammatory pathology in the lumbar spinal cord. Modulation of TSPO activity by etifoxine led to less peripheral immune cell infiltration of the spinal cord, and increased oligodendroglial regeneration after inflammatory demyelination in EAE. Our results suggest that a TSPO ligand, e.g. etifoxine, could be a potential new therapeutic option for MS with benefits that could be comparable to the administration of systemic steroids but potentially avoiding the detrimental side effects of long-term direct use of steroids.

Concepts: Immune system, Central nervous system, Nervous system, Neuron, Multiple sclerosis, Progesterone, Steroid, Pregnenolone


3α-5α-Tetrahydroprogesterone, a progesterone metabolite also known as allopregnanolone, and 5α-androstane-3α,17β-diol, a testosterone metabolite also known as 3α-androstanediol, are neuroactive steroids and positive GABAA receptor allosteric modulators. Both anorexia nervosa (AN) and obesity are complicated by affective co-morbidities and hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal dysregulation. However, it is not known whether neuroactive steroid levels are abnormal at the extremes of the weight spectrum. We hypothesized that serum allopregnanolone and 3α-androstanediol levels would be decreased in AN compared to healthy controls (HC) and negatively associated with affective symptoms throughout the weight spectrum, independent of body mass index (BMI). Thirty-six women were 1 : 1 age-matched across three groups: AN, HC, and overweight/obese (OW/OB). AN were amenorrheic; HC and OW/OB were studied in the follicular phase. Fasting serum neuroactive steroids were measured by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Mean Hamilton depression and anxiety scores were highest in AN (p<0.0001). Mean serum allopregnanolone was lower in AN and OW/OB than HC (AN 95.3±56.4 vs OW/OB 73.8±31.3 vs HC 199.5±167.8 pg/ml, p=0.01), despite comparable mean serum progesterone. Allopregnanolone, but not progesterone, was negatively associated with depression and anxiety symptom severity, independent of BMI. Serum 3α-androstanediol levels did not differ among groups and were not associated with depression or anxiety scores, despite a significant negative association between free testosterone levels and both anxiety and depression severity. In conclusion, women at both extremes of the weight spectrum have low mean serum allopregnanolone, which is associated with increased depression and anxiety severity, independent of BMI. Neuroactive steroids such as allopregnanolone may be potential therapeutic targets for depression and anxiety in traditionally treatment-resistant groups including AN.Neuropsychopharmacology accepted article preview online, 01 November 2017. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.269.

Concepts: Cholesterol, Estrogen, Body mass index, Testosterone, Progesterone, Steroid, Pregnenolone, Neuroactive steroid


Neurosteroids are both endogenous and exogenous steroids that rapidly alter neuronal excitability through interactions with ligand-gated ion channels and other cell surface receptors. They are originated from cholesterol and have important implications for schizophrenia (SZ) pathophysiology and treatment strategies. Specifically, pregnenolone (PREG), progesterone (PROG) and allopregnanolone (ALLO) exhibit similar psychotropic properties. Using enzyme immunoassay, we compared the neurosteroids in PREG downstream pathways in plasma between healthy controls (HC, n = 43) and first-episode antipsychotic-naïve patients with SZ (FEAN-SZ, n = 53) before antipsychotic drug (APD) treatment. Comparisons were also made particularly along PREG-PROG-ALLO pathway in the same FEAN-SZ patients across multiple time points following initiation of treatment for 12 months (m). Firstly, at baseline, levels of PREG were significantly higher and those of ALLO were lower in FEAN-SZ than in HC, whereas PROG, cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) were not different. Consequently, the molar ratios of ALLO/PREG and ALLO/PROG in FEAN-SZ were significantly reduced. Secondly, in response to APD at 1 month, ALLO levels in FEAN-SZ were markedly elevated, whereas PREG and PROG levels decreased. Thirdly, among FEAN-SZ, lower levels of PROG (reflecting higher conversion to ALLO) at baseline may predict better therapeutic outcome after 1 month of APD treatment. These findings point to the perturbations of the PREG-PROG-ALLO pathway early in psychosis, and further study of this pathway may inform alternative and innovative therapeutic targets for SZ.

Concepts: Receptor, Dehydroepiandrosterone, Progesterone, Steroid, Antipsychotic, Schizophrenia, Ligand-gated ion channel, Pregnenolone


A 57-year-old woman presented with hirsutism, hair loss on the scalp, and deepening of her voice. Previous testing had revealed elevated total and free testosterone levels and a normal dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate level. A diagnostic procedure was performed.

Concepts: Estrogen, Testosterone, Androgen, Androstenedione, Pregnenolone, Zona reticularis


Recently, LC-MS/MS was stated to be the method of choice to measure sex steroids. Because information on the mutual agreement of LC-MS/MS methods is scarce, we compared 7 published LC-MS/MS methods for the simultaneous measurement of testosterone, androstenedione, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).

Concepts: Estrogen, Testosterone, Androgen, Dehydroepiandrosterone, Androstenedione, Androgens, Sex steroid, Pregnenolone


Observations performed in a subset of patients treated for male pattern hair loss seem to indicate that persistent sexual side effects as well as anxious/depressive symptomatology were reported even after discontinuation of finasteride treatment. Due to the capability of finasteride to block the metabolism of progesterone (PROG) and/or testosterone (T) we have evaluated, by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, the levels of several neuroactive steroids in paired plasma and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples obtained from post-finasteride patients and in healthy controls. At the examination, post-finasteride patients referred muscular stiffness, cramps, tremors and chronic fatigue in the absence of clinical evidence of any muscular disorder or strength reduction. Severity of the anxious/depressive symptoms were quite variable in their frequency, overall all the subjects had a fairly complex and constant neuropsychiatric pattern. Assessment of neuroactive steroid levels in CSF show a decrease of PROG and its metabolites, dihydroprogesterone (DHP) and tetrahydroprogesterone (THP), associated to an increase of its precursor pregnenolone (PREG). Altered levels were also observed for T and its metabolites. Thus, a significant decrease of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) associated to an increase of T as well as of 3α-diol was detected. Changes in neuroactive steroid levels also occurred in plasma. An increase of PREG, T, 3α-diol, 3β-diol and 17β-estradiol was associated to decreased levels of DHP and THP. The present observations show that altered levels of neuroactive steroids, associated to depression symptoms, are present in androgenic alopecia patients even after discontinuation of the finasteride treatment.

Concepts: Metabolism, Estrogen, Testosterone, Progesterone, Steroid, Pregnenolone, Androgenic alopecia, Neuroactive steroid


Neurosteroids are synthesized in the brain and modulate brain excitability. There is increasing evidence of their sedative, anesthetic and antiseizure properties, as well as their influence on mood. Currently neurosteroids are classified as pregnane neurosteroids (allopregnanolone and allotetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone), androstane neurosteroids (androstanediol and etiocholanone) or sulfated neurosteroids (pregnenolone sulfate and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate). Both preclinical and clinical findings indicate that progesterone derivative neurosteroids such as allopregnanolone and allotetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone play a role in mood disorders. Clozapine and olanzapine, which were shown to be effective in stabilizing bipolar disorder, elevate pregnenolone levels in rat hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and serum. In lithium-treated mice, the blood levels of allopregnanolone and pregnenolone were elevated compared to control levels. Women diagnosed with bipolar disorder typically show symptomatic exacerbation in relation to the menstrual cycle, and show vulnerability to the onset or recurrence of mood disorders immediately after giving birth, when the levels of neurosteroid derivatives of progesterone drop. Whereas in women who had recovered from bipolar disorder, the plasma concentration of allopregnanolone was elevated compared to either healthy controls or women with major depressive disorder during the premenstrual period. During depressive episodes, blood level of allopregnanolone is low. Treatment with fluoxetine tends to stabilize the levels of neurosteroids in depression. These findings converge to suggest that these steroids have significant mood-stabilizing effect. This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that a number of anticonvulsants are effective therapies for bipolar disorder, a finding also consistent with the antiseizure properties of neurosteroids. Further exploration of action of neuroactive steroids is likely to open new frontiers in the investigation of the etiology and treatment of mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorders.

Concepts: Hippocampus, Progesterone, Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, Major depressive disorder, Dysthymia, Suicide, Pregnenolone


This brief review questions the belief that just because it is possible to measure vertebrate steroids (such as estradiol-17β, testosterone and progesterone) in the tissues of invertebrates, this necessarily means that they are endogenously derived or are hormones. There is a surprisingly large number of studies, mainly on mollusks, showing that they can readily absorb vertebrate steroids from the environment. They are also able to conjugate these steroids to fatty acids with great efficiency, and subsequently retain them for very long periods (with half-lives measured in weeks rather than days). This, plus the fact that key enzymes that are required for the biosynthesis of vertebrate steroids (e.g. aromatase) do not appear to be present in invertebrates, calls into doubt the claims in many studies on invertebrates that steroid concentrations are functionally linked to reproductive cycles or that invertebrates can be used as biomarker for vertebrate-type endocrine disrupters.

Concepts: Cholesterol, Metabolism, Estrogen, Testosterone, Estradiol, Cytochrome P450, Steroid, Pregnenolone