Isolation of glucocorticoids (GCs) from adrenal glands followed by synthesis led rapidly to their first clinical application, about 70 years ago, for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. To this day GCs are used in diseases that have an inflammatory component. However, their use is carefully monitored because of harmful side effects. GCs are also synonymous with stress and adaptation. In CNS, GC binds and activates high affinity mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and low affinity glucocorticoid receptor (GR). GR, whose expression is ubiquitous, is only activated when GC levels rise as during circadian peak and in response to stress. Numerous recent studies have yielded important and new insights on the mechanisms concerning pulsatile secretory pattern of GCs as well as various processes that tightly control their synthesis via hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis involving regulated release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from hypothalamus and pituitary, respectively. GR modulates neuronal functions and viability through both genomic and non-genomic actions, and importantly its transcriptional regulatory activity is tightly locked with GC secretory pattern. There is increasing evidence pointing to involvement of GC-GR in neurodegenerative disorders. Patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease show chronically high cortisol levels suggesting changes occurring in controls of HPA axis. In experimental models of these diseases, chronic stress or GC treatment was found to exacerbate both the clinical symptoms and neurodegenerative processes. However, recent evidence also shows that GC-GR can exert neuroprotective effects. Thus, for any potential therapeutic strategies in these neurodegenerative diseases we need to understand the precise modifications both in HPA axis and in GR activity and find ways to harness their protective actions.
Keywords: Glucocorticoids, glucocorticoid receptors, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, neurodegenerative diseases, stress.