Translocator protein (18 kDa): an update on its function in steroidogenesis

V. Papadopoulos, J. Fan, B. Zirkin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Translocator protein (18 kDa) (TSPO) is a ubiquitous mitochondrial protein. Studies of its responses to drug and endogenous ligands have shown TSPO to be involved either directly or indirectly in numerous biological functions, including mitochondrial cholesterol transport and steroid hormone biosynthesis, porphyrin transport and heme synthesis, apoptosis, cell proliferation, and anion transport. Localised to the outer mitochondrial membrane of steroidogenic cells, TSPO has been shown to associate with cytosolic and mitochondrial proteins as part of a large multiprotein complex involved in mitochondrial cholesterol transport, the rate-limiting step in steroidogenesis. There is general agreement as to the structure and pharmacology of TSPO. Stimulation of TSPO has been shown to have therapeutic use as anxiolytics by inducing allopregnanolone production in the brain, and also potentially for re-establishing androgen levels in hypogonadal ageing animals. Until recently, there has been general agreement regarding the role of TSPO in steroidogenesis. However, recent studies involving genetic depletion of TSPO in mice have created controversy about the role of this protein in steroid and heme synthesis. We review the data on the structure and function of TSPO, as well as the recent results obtained using various genetic animal models. Taken together, these studies suggest that TSPO is a unique mitochondrial pharmacological target for diseases that involve increased mitochondrial activity, including steroidogenesis. Although there is no known mammalian species that lacks TSPO, it is likely that, because of the importance of this ancient protein in evolution and mitochondrial function, redundant mechanisms may exist to replace it under circumstances when it is removed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12500
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018


  • mitochondria
  • neuroactive steroids
  • steroids
  • translocator protein

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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