hit counter

Allopregnanolone Agonists for Depression: Brexanolone & Zuranolone in Focus (2023)

Allopregnanolone agonists represent a promising new class of medications for treating depressive disorders.

Evidence suggests that allopregnanolone agonists exhibit rapid-onset of antidepressant action – particularly in women with postpartum depression (PPD).

Key facts:

  • Allopregnanolone is a neurosteroid that acts as a positive allosteric modulator of GABAA receptors and is decreased in depressive disorders.
  • The allopregnanolone agonists brexanolone and zuranolone have shown efficacy in treating postpartum depression and major depressive disorder.
  • Allopregnanolone agonists have a faster onset of action compared to conventional antidepressants.
  • Ongoing research is evaluating allopregnanolone agonists for treatment-resistant depression and in combination with other antidepressants.

Source: Cureus (2023)

How Allopregnanolone Agonists May Treat Depression (Mechanisms of Action)

Allopregnanolone is a neuroactive steroid (NAS) synthesized from progesterone that exerts effects in the brain and body.

It acts as a positive allosteric modulator (PAM) of GABA-A receptors, potentiating the inhibitory effects of GABA.

This results in reduced neuronal excitability.

Allopregnanolone levels have been found to be decreased in patients with depressive disorders compared to healthy individuals.

The pathophysiology of major depressive disorder (MDD) has been linked to altered GABAergic transmission.

GABA-A receptors are pentameric chloride channels composed of various subunits, including α, β, γ, δ, and others.

The composition of subunits contributes to the pharmacology of the receptor.

Allopregnanolone binds to a site on GABA-A receptors leading to increased chloride flux and neuronal hyperpolarization.

This produces anxiolytic, sedative, anticonvulsant, and anesthetic effects.

Unlike benzodiazepines that act at synaptic GABA-A receptors, allopregnanolone has high affinity for extra-synaptic receptors containing the δ (delta) subunit.

These extra-synaptic GABAA receptors are thought to mediate tonic inhibition in the brain.

By modulating tonic inhibition, allopregnanolone can fine-tune neuronal excitability and influence mood regulation.

The mechanism of allopregnanolone agonists involves normalization of GABAergic transmission that is deficient in depressive disorders.

This is a novel mechanism of action compared to conventional antidepressants that target monoamine neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Allopregnanolone Agonists for Depression: Clinical Trial Efficacy

As of 2023, there are only 2 allopregnanolone agonists FDA-approved for the treatment of depressive disorders, including: Brexanolone and Zuranolone – both of which are specifically reserved for postpartum depression (PPD).


Brexanolone is an analog of the neurosteroid allopregnanolone, administered in a soluble, injectable form.

It functions as a modulator of the GABA neurotransmitter system, mirroring a naturally occurring progesterone metabolite that varies in concentration during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

FDA Approval & Role in PPD

Brexanolone holds the distinction of being the first drug approved by the FDA specifically for the treatment of postpartum depression (PPD).

This approval marked a significant milestone in psychiatric medication, given the limited options available for PPD treatment.

Clinical Trial Efficacy

Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) have demonstrated the efficacy of brexanolone in treating PPD.

These studies, as summarized in various meta-analyses, show that brexanolone has higher response and remission rates in PPD compared to placebos, indicating its effectiveness in alleviating depressive symptoms in postpartum women.

Safety & Administration

The main drawbacks of brexanolone include the need for continuous infusion and inpatient monitoring due to side effects like somnolence and dizziness.

Its use is cautioned in patients with end-stage renal disease because of issues related to the excretion of certain components.

Additionally, as an inhibitor of the CYP2C9 enzyme, careful consideration is required when co-administering other drugs metabolized by this enzyme.


Zuranolone became the second allopregnanolone agonist to receive FDA approval for the treatment of postpartum depression (PPD).

Like brexanolone, it functions as a positive allosteric modulator of GABA receptors – mirroring the naturally occurring progesterone metabolite “allopregnanolone” that varies in concentration during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Clinical Trials & Efficacy

Several RCTs have explored the efficacy of zuranolone in treating PPD and MDD.

These studies have generally shown positive outcomes, with zuranolone demonstrating a significant initial response and remission rates in treating MDD, often surpassing the effects seen in placebo groups.

The FDA approved zuranolone for postpartum depression (PPD) in August 2023.


A notable phase 3 trial, the MOUNTAIN study, investigated the efficacy of zuranolone at different doses for MDD.

Despite not meeting its primary endpoint, the study reported a rapid onset of symptom improvement and sustained effects over time, indicating the potential of zuranolone as an important addition to MDD treatment options.

Safety & Tolerability

The safety profile of zuranolone has been closely examined in clinical trials.

While a proportion of patients experience side effects such as somnolence, diarrhea, and nausea, there has been no significant increase in suicidal ideation.

The occurrence of side effects appears to be dose-dependent, with higher doses resulting in more frequent adverse events.


Ganaxolone is yet another synthetic analog of the natural neurosteroid allopregnanolone – but is not approved for depressive disorders.

Ganaxolone specifically targets GABA-A receptors containing δ-subunits.

Therapeutic Potential in Epilepsy

Ganaxolone has shown promise in the treatment of various forms of epilepsy.

Its unique mechanism of action makes it effective in seizure control, and it has been the subject of several studies demonstrating its efficacy in patients with different types of epilepsy.

Research & Development

Current research efforts are focused on exploring ganaxolone for conditions beyond epilepsy.

This includes phase 2 and phase 3 trials investigating its use in postpartum depression (PPD), treatment-resistant status epilepticus, and rare genetic epilepsies like CDLK5 deficiency disorder, which are typically unresponsive to conventional treatments.

The potential of ganaxolone in treating pharmacoresistant status epilepticus is particularly noteworthy, given the limited treatment options available for this severe form of epilepsy.

Its development could represent a significant advancement in the management of this challenging condition.


SGE-516 is another allopregnanolone agonist that functions as a neuroactive steroid and GABA-A receptor modulator – specifically at the gamma and delta subunits.

It is being studied for its potential in treating various psychiatric and neurological disorders.

Potential in Postpartum Depression

In preclinical models, SGE-516 has demonstrated efficacy in reducing depressive behaviors and enhancing maternal care, suggesting its potential role in the treatment of postpartum depression.

It also appears to suppress the activation of the stress-induced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is often dysregulated in depressive disorders.

Long-Term Oral Dosing

One of the notable aspects of SGE-516 is its suitability for long-term oral administration.

This feature could make it a convenient option for chronic management of conditions like PPD, where long-term treatment strategies are often necessary.

Future Research

Further research into SGE-516, particularly in clinical settings, is needed to fully understand its efficacy and safety profile.

Its role in modulating the stress response and potential benefits in mood disorders like PPD make it a candidate of high interest in psychiatric pharmacology.

Potential Advantages of Allopregnanolone Agonists vs. Conventional Antidepressants

Rapid Onset of Action: Unlike traditional antidepressants that often take weeks to show effects, allopregnanolone agonists like brexanolone and zuranolone demonstrate a quicker onset of therapeutic action. This rapid response can be crucial for patients needing immediate relief.

Targeted Mechanism of Action: These agonists work by modulating the GABA-A receptors, offering a distinct mechanism compared to typical antidepressants that primarily target the monoamine neurotransmitter system. This difference can be particularly beneficial for patients who have not responded to conventional treatments.

Potential for Higher Efficacy: Early clinical trials suggest that allopregnanolone agonists may offer higher efficacy in certain populations, such as individuals with postpartum depression, a condition for which there are limited specific treatments.

Individuality in Responses to Allopregnanolone Agonists

Personalized Treatment Approach: Depression is a highly individualized disorder, and responses to allopregnanolone agonists can vary significantly among individuals. This variability necessitates a personalized approach to treatment, considering each patient’s unique neurochemical and genetic makeup.

Variability Based on Sex/Gender: Differences in hormonal profiles and brain chemistry between sexes can lead to variability in how individuals respond to allopregnanolone agonists, potentially affecting both the efficacy and side-effect profile of these treatments.

Genetic Factors: Genetic differences can influence how patients respond to these agonists, particularly in how their GABA_A receptors function. Understanding these genetic factors can help tailor treatment more effectively.

Side Effects & Adverse Reactions to Allopregnanolone Agonists

Profile of Side Effects: While zuranolone is generally well-tolerated, it may cause side effects such as fatigue, headache, and dizziness. Brexanolone, on the other hand, has been associated with more severe side effects, including sedation and loss of consciousness in some cases.

Considerations for Specific Populations: The use of these agonists in certain populations, like pregnant women or individuals with end-stage renal disease, requires careful consideration due to specific health risks and drug interactions.

Administration Modalities: Brexanolone & Zuranolone

Brexanolone’s IV Administration: Brexanolone is administered intravenously, requiring hospitalization and continuous monitoring, which can be logistically challenging and less convenient for patients.

Zuranolone’s Oral Administration: In contrast, zuranolone is administered orally, offering greater ease of use, although adherence to the dosing schedule is crucial for its effectiveness.

Takeaway: Allopregnanolone Agonists Show Promise for Depressive Disorders

Allopregnanolone agonists represent a significant advance in the treatment of postpartum depression (PPD), particularly for individuals who have not found relief with traditional antidepressants.

Their rapid action and novel mechanism of action offers hope for many patients.

However, the variability in individual responses and the potential for significant side effects necessitate a careful, personalized approach to their use.

Additionally, the challenges associated with the administration of these treatments, especially brexanolone, highlight the need for further innovation and adaptation in their delivery.

As research continues, these agonists could reshape the landscape of postpartum depression treatment, balancing their promising benefits against the practical realities of their use.


Related Posts:

MHD News (100% Free)

* indicates required

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.