Fetal hormonal programming of sex differences in depression: linking women's mental health with sex differences in the brain across the lifespan
The rapid activation of stress-responsive neuroendocrine systems is a basic reaction of animals to perturbations in their environment. One well-established response is that of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In rats, corticosterone is the major adrenal steroid secreted and is released in direct response to adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) secreted from the anterior pituitary gland. ACTH in turn is regulated by the hypothalamic factor, corticotropin-releasing hormone. A sex difference exists in the response of the HPA axis to stress, with females reacting more robustly than males. It has been demonstrated that in both sexes, products of the HPA axis inhibit reproductive function. Conversely, the sex differences in HPA function are in part due to differences in the circulating gonadal steroid hormone milieu. It appears that testosterone can act to inhibit HPA function, whereas estrogen can enhance HPA function. One mechanism by which androgens and estrogens modulate stress responses is through the binding to their cognate receptors in the central nervous system. The distribution and regulation of androgen and estrogen receptors within the CNS suggest possible sites and mechanisms by which gonadal steroid hormones can influence stress responses. In the case of androgens, data suggest that the control of the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus is mediated trans-synaptically. For estrogen, modulation of the HPA axis may be due to changes in glucocorticoid receptor-mediated negative feedback mechanisms. The results of a variety of studies suggest that gonadal steroid hormones, particularly testosterone, modulate HPA activity in an attempt to prevent the deleterious effects of HPA activation on reproductive function.