Sex-dependent changes in neuroactive steroid concentrations in the rat brain following acute swim stress

Ying Sze, Andrew Gill, Paula Brunton

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Sex differences in hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity are well established in rodents. In addition to glucocorticoids, stress also stimulates secretion of progesterone and deoxycorticosterone (DOC) from the adrenal gland. Neuroactive steroid metabolites of these precursors can modulate HPA axis function; however it is not known whether levels of these steroids differ between male and females following stress. Here we aimed to establish whether neuroactive steroid concentrations in the brain display sex- and/or region-specific differences under basal conditions and following exposure to acute stress. Brains were collected from male and female rats killed under non-stress conditions or following exposure to forced swimming. Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry was used to quantify 8 steroids: corticosterone, DOC, dihydrodeoxycorticosterone (DHDOC), pregnenolone, progesterone, dihydroprogesterone (DHP), allopregnanolone and testosterone in plasma and 5 brain regions (frontal cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and brainstem). Corticosterone, DOC and progesterone concentrations were significantly greater in the plasma and brain of both sexes following stress; however the responses in plasma were greater in females compared to males. This sex difference was also observed in the majority of brain regions for DOC and progesterone, but not for corticosterone. Despite observing no stress-induced changes in circulating concentrations of pregnenolone, DHDOC or DHP, concentrations were significantly greater in the brain, and this effect was more pronounced in females than males. Basal plasma and brain concentrations of allopregnanolone were significantly higher in females; moreover, stress had a greater impact on central allopregnanolone concentrations in females. Stress had no effect on circulating or brain concentrations of testosterone in males. These data indicate sex and regional differences in the generation of neuroactive steroids in the brain following acute stress, especially for the 5α-reduced steroids, and further suggest sex-specific expression of steroidogenic enzymes in the brain. Thus, differential neurosteroidogenesis may contribute to sex differences in HPA axis responses to stress.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Early online date8 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018

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