But the verdict is still out on synthetic DHEA, which was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the 1980s and can now be sold only as a food supplement.
Now, researchers at Lehigh University believe they have established a possible cause-and-effect relationship between DHEA and the workings of the body's central nervous system.
Neal Simon, chair of the biological sciences department at Lehigh, says he and his colleagues have discovered the "genomic effect" of DHEA, or its influence at a cell's genetic level. By contrast, says Simon, most of the other research into neurosteroids has focused on their activity at the cell surface.
"We are one of only a few groups - to the best of my knowledge - that has demonstrated a genomic effect of DHEA in the central nervous system. This finding opens up a wide range of possibilities regarding how DHEA produces its effect as a neurosteroid. You have to consider a host of other effects it might produce." Two of those effects could be improved survival of neurons, or nerve cells, or increased neurite outgrowth, which could contribute to improved cognition and memory.
Simon and his group are particularly interested in the interaction between DHEA and androgen, the hormone that stimulates the development of sex characteristics in males. "We have looked at DHEA's structure, and at metabolic pathways in cells, to determine what effects androgen might have at the genetic level," says Simon. "We are the first lab to demonstrate that DHEA can act to regulate gene function by interacting with androgen receptors, either by itself or after its conversion to other androgens. This is a very new view of how
Contact: William Johnson