Sex-Dependent Regulation of Aromatase-Mediated Synaptic Plasticity in the Basolateral Amygdala

J Neurosci. 2017 Feb 8;37(6):1532-1545. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1532-16.2016. Epub 2016 Dec 27.


The basolateral amygdala (BLA) integrates sensory input from cortical and subcortical regions, a function that requires marked synaptic plasticity. Here we provide evidence that cytochrome P450 aromatase (AROM), the enzyme converting testosterone to 17β-estradiol (E2), contributes to the regulation of this plasticity in a sex-specific manner. We show that AROM is expressed in the BLA, particularly in the basolateral nucleus (BL), in male and female rodents. Systemic administration of the AROM inhibitor letrozole reduced spine synapse density in the BL of adult female mice but not in the BL of male mice. Similarly, in organotypic corticoamygdalar slice cultures from immature rats, treatment with letrozole significantly reduced spine synapses in the BL only in cultures derived from females. In addition, letrozole sex-specifically altered synaptic properties in the BL: in acute slices from juvenile (prepubertal) female rats, wash-in of letrozole virtually abolished long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas it did not prevent the generation of LTP in the slices from males. Together, these data indicate that neuron-derived E2 modulates synaptic plasticity in rodent BLA sex-dependently. As protein expression levels of AROM, estrogen and androgen receptors did not differ between males and females and were not sex-specifically altered by letrozole, the findings suggest sex-specific mechanisms of E2 signaling.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The basolateral amygdala (BLA) is a key structure of the fear circuit. This research reveals a sexually dimorphic regulation of synaptic plasticity in the BLA involving neuronal aromatase, which produces the neurosteroid 17β-estradiol (E2). As male and female neurons in rodent BLA responded differently to aromatase inhibition both in vivo and in vitro, our findings suggest that E2 signaling in BLA neurons is regulated sex-dependently, presumably via mechanisms that have been established during sexual determination. These findings could be relevant for the understanding of sex differences in mood disorders and of the side effects of cytochrome P450 aromatase inhibitors, which are frequently used for breast cancer therapy.

Keywords: amygdala; androgen; aromatase; estrogen; synaptic plasticity.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aromatase / physiology*
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Basolateral Nuclear Complex / drug effects
  • Basolateral Nuclear Complex / physiology*
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / drug effects
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Letrozole
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Nitriles / pharmacology
  • Organ Culture Techniques
  • Rats
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Triazoles / pharmacology


  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • Nitriles
  • Triazoles
  • Letrozole
  • Aromatase