Allopregnanolone in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis modulates contextual fear in rats.
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Trauma- and stress-related disorders are among the most common types of mental illness affecting the U.S. population. For many of these disorders, there is a striking sex difference in lifetime prevalence; for instance, women are twice as likely as men to be affected by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gonadal steroids and their metabolites have been implicated in sex differences in fear and anxiety. One example, allopregnanolone (ALLO), is a neuroactive metabolite of progesterone that allosterically enhances GABAA receptor activity and has anxiolytic effects. Like other ovarian hormones, it not only occurs at different levels in males and females but also fluctuates over the female reproductive cycle. One brain structure that may be involved in neuroactive steroid regulation of fear and anxiety is the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST). To explore this question, we examined the consequences of augmenting or reducing ALLO activity in the BNST on the expression of Pavlovian fear conditioning in rats. In Experiment 1, intra-BNST infusions of ALLO in male rats suppressed freezing behavior (a fear response) to the conditioned context, but did not influence freezing to a discrete tone conditioned stimulus (CS). In Experiment 2, intra-BNST infusion of either finasteride (FIN), an inhibitor of ALLO synthesis, or 17-phenyl-(3,5)-androst-16-en-3-ol, an ALLO antagonist, in female rats enhanced contextual freezing; neither treatment affected freezing to the tone CS. These findings support a role for ALLO in modulating contextual fear via the BNST and suggest that sex differences in fear and anxiety could arise from differential steroid regulation of BNST function. The susceptibility of women to disorders such as PTSD may be linked to cyclic declines in neuroactive steroid activity within fear circuitry.