22 February 2002
Allopregnanolone is a neuroactive steroid present in the brain, but also measurable in systemic circulation. It exhibits anxiolytic and anticonvulsant effects and is able to produce hyperphagia. Since eating behavior disturbances and increased peripheral basal sympathetic activity have been reported in obese subjects, the present study investigated allopregnanolone and catecholamine (epinephrine and norepinephrine) responses to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in obese subjects. Blood was sampled from 39 obese (14 men and 25 women) and 57 normal-weight subjects (20 men and 37 women) and assayed for cortisol, allopregnanolone and catecholamines concentrations. In addition, 13 obese patients (5 men and 8 women) and 18 control subjects (9 men and 9 women) were submitted to a CRH test. Plasma allopregnanolone and norepinephrine levels were significantly higher in obese than in control subjects (p < 0.01), but plasma cortisol and epinephrine concentrations were comparable in both groups. No correlation was found in any group between plasma allopregnanolone and norepinephrine or epinephrine levels. Acute CRH administration significantly stimulated allopregnanolone secretion, with peak levels at 15 min in obese subjects, whereas maximal concentrations were reached after 60 min only in controls. In obese patients the allopregnanolone secretory incremental area was significantly higher than in controls (p < 0.02). CRH injection increased cortisol levels to a comparable extent in both groups. Plasma norepinephrine or epinephrine levels did were not significantly affected by CRH test in either group. In conclusion, obese subjects present higher allopregnanolone levels and a greater response to CRH than normal subjects. Since allopregnanolone has hyperphagic effects in rats, hypersecretion of the hormone in obese patients may represent one of the mechanisms underlying obesity.