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Central glucocorticoid receptor-mediated effects of the antidepressant, citalopram, in humans: A study using EEG and cognitive testing

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Hamid Alhaj, Dr Peter GallagherORCiD, Andy Hanson, Anna Massey, Professor Hamish McAllister-WilliamsORCiD


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Our previous work in cellular and animal models has shown that antidepressants activate glucocorticoid receptor (GR) translocation, induce GR down-regulation, and decrease GR-mediated effects in the presence of GR agonists. However, whether these effects can be extrapolated to the human brain is still unclear. In this study, the effects of four days of treatment with the antidepressant, citalopram (20 mg/day), or placebo, were assessed in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study. Central GR-mediated effects were examined by the effects of a single dose of cortisol (30 mg, orally) on two measures known to be sensitive to glucocorticoid administration: EEG alpha power and working memory function. Twenty healthy male subjects aged between 18 and 33 years participated to the study. The results suggest that GR activation by antidepressants, and the subsequent decrease in GR-mediated effects in the presence of GR agonists, indeed occurs in the human brain. Specifically, pre-treatment with citalopram decreased the well-known ability of cortisol to increase EEG alpha power and to impair working memory: cortisol-induced increase in EEG alpha power was (anteriorly) +15 to +20% (p = 0.01) after placebo and +5 to +8% (p > 0.5) after citalopram; and cortisol-induced increase in working memory errors was (at level 12, on average) 2.50 vs. 4.55 (p < 0.05) after placebo and 4.10 vs. 3.35 (p > 0.05) after citalopram. No effects were detected on alerting. These results are consistent with the notion that citalopram treatment activates GR translocation and inhibits the functional consequences of the subsequent cortisol administration. Our study further emphasizes the importance of the GR as a target for antidepressant action in humans.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Pariante CM, Alhaj HA, Arulnathan VE, Gallagher P, Hanson A, Massey AE, McAllister-Williams RH

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology

Year: 2012

Volume: 37

Issue: 5

Pages: 618-628

Print publication date: 01/05/2012

ISSN (print): 0306-4530

ISSN (electronic): 1873-3360

Publisher: Pergamon


DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.08.011


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Funder referenceFunder name
South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
Institute of Psychiatry
Medical Research Council (UK)
NIHR 'Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health'
22963Commission of European Communities