Steroid structure and pharmacological properties determine the anti-amnesic effects of pregnenolone sulphate in the passive avoidance task in rats

M. Vallée, W. Shen, S. C. Heinrichs, C. F. Zorumski, D. F. Covey, George F. Koob*, R. H. Purdy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Pregnenolone sulphate (PREGS) has generated interest as one of the most potent memory-enhancing neurosteroids to be examined in rodent learning studies, with particular importance in the ageing process. The mechanism by which this endogenous steroid enhances memory formation is hypothesized to involve actions on glutamatergic and GABAergic systems. This hypothesis stems from findings that PREGS is a potent positive modulator of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) and a negative modulator of γ-aminobutyric acidA receptors (GABAARs). Moreover, PREGS is able to reverse the amnesic-like effects of NMDAR and GABAAR ligands. To investigate this hypothesis, the present study in rats examined the memory-altering abilities of structural analogs of PREGS, which differ in their modulation of NMDAR and/or GABAAR function. The analogs tested were: 11-ketopregnenolone sulphate (an agent that is inactive at GABAARs and NMDARs), epipregnanolone ([3β-hydroxy-5β-pregnan-20-one] sulphate, an inhibitor of both GABAARs and NMDARs), and a newly synthesized (-) PREGS enantiomer (which is identical to PREGS in effects on GABAARs and NMDARs). The memory-enhancing effects of PREGS and its analogs were tested in the passive avoidance task using the model of scopolamine-induced amnesia. Both PREGS and its (-) enantiomer blocked the effects of scopolamine. The results show that, unlike PREGS, 11-ketopregnenolone sulphate and epipregnanolone sulphate failed to block the effect of scopolamine, suggesting that altering the modulation of NMDA receptors diminishes the memory-enhancing effects of PREGS. Moreover, enantioselectivity was demonstrated by the ability of natural PREGS to be an order of magnitude more effective than its synthetic enantiomer in reversing scopolamine-induced amnesia. These results identify a novel neuropharmacological site for the modulation of memory processes by neuroactive steroids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2003-2010
Number of pages8
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2001


  • Memory
  • NMDA receptors
  • Neurosteroid
  • Passive avoidance
  • Pregnenolone sulphate enantiomers
  • Rats
  • Scopolamine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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