N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA, 200 microM) evokes the release of [3H]norepinephrine ([3H]NE) from preloaded hippocampal slices. This effect is potentiated by dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA S), whereas it is inhibited by pregnenolone sulfate (PREG S) and the high-affinity sigma inverse agonist 1,3-di(2-tolyl)guanidine, at concentrations of > or = 100 nM. Neither 3 alpha-hydroxy-5 alpha-pregnan-20-one nor its sulfate ester modified NMDA-evoked [3H]NE overflow. The sigma antagonists haloperidol and 1-[2-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)-ethyl]-4-methylpiperazine, although inactive by themselves, completely prevented the effects of DHEA S, PREG S, and 1,3-di(2-tolyl)guanidine on NMDA-evoked [3H]NE release. Progesterone (100 nM) mimicked the antagonistic effect of haloperidol and 1-[2-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)ethyl]-4-methyl-piperazine. These results indicate that the tested steroid sulfate esters differentially affected the NMDA response in vitro and suggest that DHEA S acts as a sigma agonist, that PREG S acts as a sigma inverse agonist, and that progesterone may act as a sigma antagonist. Pertussis toxin, which inactivates the Gi/o types of guanine nucleotide-binding protein (Gi/o protein) function, suppresses both effects of DHEA S and PREG S. Since sigma 1 but not sigma 2 receptors are coupled to Gi/o proteins, the present results suggest that DHEA S and PREG S control the NMDA response via sigma 1 receptors.