An extensive literature stretching back decades has shown that prolonged stress or prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids—the adrenal steroids secreted during stress—can have adverse effects on the rodent hippocampus. More recent findings suggest a similar phenomenon in the human hippocampus associated with many neuropsychiatric disorders. This review examines the evidence for hippocampal atrophy in (1) Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by a pathologic oversecretion of glucocorticoids; (2) episodes of repeated and severe major depression, which is often associated with hypersecretion of glucocorticoids; and (3) posttraumatic stress disorder. Key questions that will be examined include whether the hippocampal atrophy arises from the neuropsychiatric disorder, or precedes and predisposes toward it; whether glucocorticoids really are plausible candidates for contributing to the atrophy; and what cellular mechanisms underlie the overall decreases in hippocampal volume. Explicit memory deficits have been demonstrated in Cushing syndrome, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder; an extensive literature suggests that hippocampal atrophy of the magnitude found in these disorders can give rise to such cognitive deficits.
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