The adrenal cortex secretes large amounts of DHEA and smaller amounts of androstenedione and testosterone. Although these androgens are thought to contribute to the normal maturation process, they do not stimulate or support major androgen-depen-dent pubertal changes in humans. Recent studies suggest that DHEA and its sulfate may have other important physiologic actions. If that is correct, these results are probably due to the peripheral conversion of DHEA to more potent androgens or to estrogens and interaction with androgen and estrogen receptors, respectively. Additional effects may be exerted through an interac-tion with the GABAA and glutamate receptors in the brain or with a nuclear receptor in several central and peripheral sites. The therapeutic use of DHEA in humans has been explored, but the substance has already been adopted with uncritical enthusiasm by members of the sports drug culture and the vitamin and food supplement culture.
The results of a placebo-controlled trial of DHEA in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus have been reported as well as those of a study of DHEA replacement in women with adrenal insufficiency. In both studies a small beneficial effect was seen, with significant improvement of the disease in the former and a clearly added sense of well-being in the latter. The androgenic or estrogenic actions of DHEA could explain the effects of the com-pound in both situations.