The expression of aromatase, the enzyme that catalyzes the biosynthesis of estrogens from precursor androgens, is increased in the brain after injury, suggesting that aromatase may be involved in neuroprotection. In the present study, the effect of inactivating aromatase has been assessed in a model of neurodegeneration induced by the systemic administration of neurotoxins. Domoic acid, at a dose that is not neurotoxic in intact male mice, induced significant neuronal loss in the hilus of the hippocampal formation of mice with reduced levels of aromatase substrates as a result of gonadectomy. Furthermore, the aromatase substrate testosterone, as well as its metabolite estradiol, the product of aromatase, were able to protect hilar neurons from domoic acid. In contrast, dihydrotestosterone, the 5 alpha-reduced metabolite of testosterone and a nonaromatizable androgen, was not. These findings suggest that aromatization of testosterone to estradiol may be involved in the neuroprotective action of testosterone in this experimental model. In addition, aromatase knock-out mice showed significant neuronal loss after injection of a low dose of domoic acid, while control littermates did not, indicating that aromatase deficiency increases the vulnerability of hilar neurons to neurotoxic degeneration. The effect of aromatase on neuroprotection was also tested in male rats treated systemically with the specific aromatase inhibitor fadrozole and injected with kainic acid, a well characterized neurotoxin for hilar neurons in the rat. Fadrozole enhanced the neurodegenerative effect of kainic acid in intact male rats and this effect was counterbalanced by the administration of estradiol. Furthermore, the neuroprotective effect of testosterone against kainic acid in castrated male rats was blocked by fadrozole. These findings suggest that neuroprotection by aromatase is due to the formation of estradiol from its precursor testosterone. Finally, a role for local cerebral aromatase in neuroprotection is indicated by the fact that intracerebral administration of fadrozole enhanced kainic acid induced neurodegeneration in the hippocampus of intact male rats. These findings indicate that aromatase deficiency decreases the threshold for neurodegeneration and that local cerebral aromatase is neuroprotective. Brain aromatase may therefore represent a new target for therapeutic approaches to neurodegenerative diseases.
Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.