Investigating the Effects of Mifepristone (RU486) in the Behavioral, Hormonal and Central Responses to Acute Stress

Aynara Chávez Muñoz, Colby College

Document Type Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Depression is associated with glucocorticoid hypersecretion, due to dysfunction of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocorticol axis (HPA-axis). Because excess glucocorticoids are associated with depressive-like features in humans, glucocorticoid receptor antagonists are currently being tested for antidepressant efficacy in clinical trials. In the current study the hypothesis that mifepristone (RU486), a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, would decrease the neuroendocrine and central HPA-axis responses to an acute stressor and attentuate depressive like behavior in an animal model of behavioral helplessness (forced swim test) was tested. Adult male rats were treated with 10 mglkg RU486 (subcutaneous) for five days and then exposed to a IO-minute forced swim test (FST), conducted in Plexiglas cylinders. FST sessions were videotaped for later analysis of behavioral immobility. Plasma ACTH and corticosterone CORT were measured at 15min and 90min after FST cessation. Animals were perfused and brains were collected for immunocytochemical assessment of c-Fos expression in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a brain region implicated in both depression and central control of the HPA axis. RU486 significantly decreased peak ACTH and CORT concentrations following FST exposure. In addition, glucocorticoid negative feedback was at1enuated in RU486-treated animals exposed to the FST. Exposure to FST alone induced c-FOS expression in the mPFC, as measured by the number of c-Fos positive neurons. Treatment with RU486 significantly increased the number of rnPFC c-Fos positive cell following FST exposure. The behavioral data obtained from FST paradigm, demonstrated that RU486 decreased immobility in the FST illustrating the potential efficacy of this drug as an antidepressant. Collectively these data suggest that RU486 dampens HPA-axis responses to stress, possibly by enhancing the excitability of stress-inhibitory neurons in the mPFC. This is particularly exciting, given the fact that this neural region is associated with decreased neural activity during depression in humans.