October 26, 2021

Glucocorticoid Modulation of Synaptic Plasticity in the Human Temporal Cortex of Epilepsy Patients: Does Chronic Stress Contribute to memory Impairment?

Abstract originally published in Epilepsia

Objective: Memory impairment is common in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy and seriously affects life quality. Chronic stress is a recognized cofactor in epilepsy and can also impair memory function. Furthermore, increased cortisol levels have been reported in epilepsy patients. Animal models have suggested that aggravating effects of stress on memory and synaptic plasticity were mediated via glucocorticoids. The aim of this study was, therefore, to investigate the effect of glucocorticoid receptor (GR) modulation on synaptic plasticity in the human cortex of epilepsy patients.

Methods: We performed field potential recordings in acute slices from the temporal neocortex of patients who underwent surgery for drug-resistant temporal lobe epilepsy. Synaptic plasticity was investigated by a theta-burst stimulation (TBS) protocol for induction of long-term potentiation (LTP) in the presence of GR modulators.

Results: LTP was impaired in temporal cortex from epilepsy patients. Pretreatment of the slices with the GR antagonist mifepristone (RU486) improved LTP induction, suggesting that LTP impairment was due to baseline GR activation in the human cortex. The highly potent GR agonist dexamethasone additionally weakened synaptic strength in an activity-dependent manner when applied after TBS.

Significance: Our results show a direct negative glucocorticoid effect on synaptic potentiation in the human cortex and imply chronic activation of glucocorticoid receptors. Chronic stress may therefore contribute to memory impairment in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. Furthermore, the activity-dependent acute inhibitory effect of dexamethasone suggests a mechanism of synaptic downscaling by which postictally increased cortisol levels may prevent pathologic plasticity upon seizures.

Learn more