Pregnenolone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) are sex hormone precursors and neuroprotective steroids. Effects of pregnenolone and DHEA may be in part mediated by their conversion to testosterone and by the consecutive conversion of testosterone to estradiol by the enzyme aromatase. This enzyme is induced in reactive astrocytes after different forms of neurodegenerative lesions and the resultant local production of estradiol in the brain has been shown to be neuroprotective. The participation of aromatase in the neuroprotective effect of pregnenolone and DHEA has been assessed in this study. The protective effect of different doses (12.5, 25, 50, and 100 mg/kg) of pregnenolone or DHEA, against systemic kainic acid (7 mg/kg b.w.), was assessed on hippocampal hilar neurons in gonadectomized Wistar male rats. To determine whether the neuroprotective effect of pregnenolone and DHEA was dependent on their conversion to estradiol, the aromatase inhibitor fadrozole (4.16 mg/ml) was administered using subcutaneous osmotic minipumps. The number of Nissl-stained neurons in the hilus of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation was estimated by the optical disector method. The administration of kainic acid resulted in a significant decrease in the number of hilar neurons compared to rats injected with vehicles. Pregnenolone and DHEA showed a dose-dependent protective effect of hilar neurons against kainic acid. The administration of the aromatase inhibitor fadrozole blocked the neuroprotective effect of pregnenolone and DHEA. These findings suggest that estradiol formation by aromatase mediates neuroprotective effects of pregnenolone and DHEA against excitotoxic-induced neuronal death in the hippocampus.
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