Chronic corticosteroid (CS) exposure is associated with changes in memory and the hippocampus in both humans and in animal models. The hippocampus has a high concentration of glucocorticoid receptors (GCRs), and the pre-clinical literature demonstrates shortening of apical dendrites in the CA3 region of the hippocampus and decreased neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus (DG) following CS administration. In humans, both stress and CS exposure are associated with a decline in declarative memory performance (a process mediated by the hippocampus). Impairment in declarative memory and hippocampal atrophy are reported in patients with excessive CS release due to Cushing's disease, and, by our group, in patients receiving prescription CS therapy. These findings have important implications for patients with mood disorders, as a large subset of people with major depressive disorder (MDD) show evidence of HPA axis activation, elevated cortisol and, importantly, resistance to the effects of CSs on both the HPA axis and on declarative memory. Thus, resistance to corticosteroids appears to be a consequence of MDD. Our prior work has shown memory deficits in persons receiving prescription CSs (e.g., prednisone) or healthy controls briefly administered hydrocortisone (cortisol). Our pilot data suggest that 3-day administration of hydrocortisone is associated with reversible decline in declarative memory, decrease in task-related hippocampal activation, and a significant, but reversible, decrease in hippocampal volume. Decrease in hippocampal volume was greater in women and correlated with increases in serum cortisol levels. Based on these data, we propose to examine changes in declarative memory, as well as use state-of-the-art high- resolution multimodal neuroimaging, including structural and functional (i.e., task-based and resting state) MRI, in both men and women healthy controls, and, as an exploratory aim, a depressed group, given 3-day exposures to hydrocortisone (160 mg/day) or placebo. The study will translate preclinical findings to humans, provide valuable data on possible sex differences in the response to cortisol and, for the first time, identify specific hippocampal subfields (e.g., CA3/DG) in humans that are most sensitive to acute CS effects. Using resting state fMRI data and whole brain connectomics using graph theoretical approaches, we will determine the effects of cortisol exposure on functional brain networks. Furthermore, this will be the first study to use neuroimaging to compare the brain's response to CSs in people with depression vs. controls, and determine whether depressed people demonstrate glucocorticoid resistance within the hippocampus. We hypothesize that hippocampal response to acute CSs will be greatest in the CA3/DG subfield, greater in women than in men, and that depressed people will show a blunted hippocampal response to CSs compared to controls. A multidisciplinary research team with extensive experience in CS effects on the brain and hippocampal subfield neuroimaging, and a prior history of research collaboration, will conduct the project.
The hippocampus is a brain region that is critical to the formation of memories and is highly sensitive to corticosteroid hormones, such as cortisol. The proposed study will, for the first time, examine memory, size and activation of hippocampal subregions, and connectivity within the brain, following brief exposure to cortisol. Differences in hippocampal response between men and women, depressed and non-depressed people, and the impact of stress, early-life adversity, and sleep will be assessed.