Rapid non-genomic effects of corticosteroids and their role in the central stress response

Publication Type:

Journal Article


J Endocrinol, Volume 209, p.153-167 (2011)


1479-6805 (Electronic)00

DOI Name (links to online publication)



In response to a stressful encounter the brain activates a comprehensive stress system that engages the organism in an adaptive response to the threatening situation. This stress system acts on multiple peripheral tissues and feeds back to the brain; one of its key players are corticosteroid hormones. Corticosteroids affect brain functioning through both delayed, genomic and rapid, non-genomic mechanisms. The latter mode of action was long known but only in recent years the physiological basis in the brain is beginning to be unravelled. We now know that corticosteroids exert rapid, non-genomic effects on the excitability and activation of neurons in (amongst others) the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. In addition, corticosteroids affect cognition, adaptive behaviour and neuroendocrine output within minutes. Knowledge on the identity of the receptors and secondary pathways mediating the non-genomic effects of corticosteroids on a cellular level is accumulating. Interestingly, in many cases an essential role for the 'classical' mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors in a novel membrane-associated mechanism is found. Here, we systematically review the recent literature on non-genomic actions of corticosteroids on neuronal activity and functioning in selected limbic brain targets. Further, we will discuss the relevance of these permissive effects for cognition and neuroendocrine control, and the integration of this novel mode of action into the complex balanced pattern of stress effects in the brain.