Neurobehavioral actions of coumestrol and related isoflavonoids in rodents

Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2002 Jan-Feb;24(1):47-54. doi: 10.1016/s0892-0362(01)00192-1.


Isoflavonoids are plant estrogens that are increasingly advocated as a natural alternative to estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) and are available as dietary supplements. As weak estrogen agonists/antagonists with a range of other enzymatic activities, the isoflavonoids provide a useful model for the actions of endocrine disruptors. This paper reviews the responses of rodents to diets containing coumestrol or an isoflavone supplement in comparison to animals fed the phytoestrogen-free AIN76A diet. Neural mechanisms were investigated by examining isoflavonoid effects on ER(alpha)-dependent (regulation of oxytocin receptor [OTR] binding in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus [VMN]) and ERbeta-dependent (regulation of ERbeta mRNA in the paraventricular nucleus [PVN]) endpoints. Activational as well as organizational effects on sexual behavior and gonadotropin secretion were observed for coumestrol. Treatment of rat dams with a 100-ppm coumestrol diet from birth to postnatal day (PND) 21 induced premature anovulation in female offspring, and treatment from birth to PND 10 suppressed sexual behavior in male offspring. One-week treatment of ovariectomized (OVX) female rats with the same coumestrol diet increased ERbeta mRNA expression in the PVN, an effect opposite to that of estradiol. Ten days of treatment with a 200-ppm coumestrol diet increased LH secretion in OVX wild-type mice, an effect opposite to the normal negative feedback effects of estradiol. No effects were observed in ER(alpha) knockout (ER(alpha)KO)-OVX females, indicating that coumestrol's action on LH was mediated through ER(alpha). Similar activational effects were observed for the isoflavone diet. The lordotic response to estrogen was significantly reduced by 2 days of treatment of OVX adult females with an isoflavone diet providing 13 ppm genistein and 33 ppm daidzein. One week of treatment with the same isoflavone diet produced an effect opposite to that of estradiol in the PVN, increasing ERbeta mRNA expression above control levels. These investigations show that, in spite of their preferential affinity for ERbeta, isoflavonoids act through both ER(alpha) and ERbeta. Moreover, their neurobehavioral actions were antiestrogenic, either antagonizing or producing an action in opposition to that of estradiol. This work demonstrates that even small, physiologically relevant exposure levels can alter estrogen-dependent gene expression in the brain and complex behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Suckling
  • Coumestrol / pharmacology*
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Isoflavones / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Estrogen / genetics
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / drug effects*


  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Isoflavones
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Coumestrol