Sex differences in the regulation of embryonic brain aromatase

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 1997 Apr;61(3-6):315-22. doi: 10.1016/s0960-0760(97)80029-5.


Oestrogen formed from androgen by aromatization plays a critical role in the sexual differentiation of the male brain and behaviour. A question which has still to be answered is what regulates the gender-specific changes in aromatase activity forming oestrogen during sensitive periods of brain growth. Using a primary cell culture technique and sexed embryos, we have shown that in the fetal mouse brain, oestrogen formation in the male is neuronal rather than glial and aromatase activity is regionally localized, being higher in the hypothalamus than in the cortex. The aromatase activity measured from cells in culture has the same enzyme binding affinity (apparent Km approximately 40 nM) as intact brain samples. Neurones developing in the embryonic male brain (embryonic day (ED) 15) contain higher aromatase activity (Vmax, 895 fmol/h/mg protein) than the female (Vmax, 604). Although a sex difference exists at early stages of embryonic development (ED 13), the embryonic aromatase system is regulated by steroids later in fetal development. The developing aromatase-containing neuroblasts probably form processes which connect to other aromatase neurones. Immunoreactive staining with an aromatase polyclonal antibody identifies an increase in numbers of aromatase-immunoreactive hypothalamic neuronal cell bodies following testosterone treatment. Testosterone treatment also causes both stimulation of neurite growth and branching as well as functional maturation of aromatase neurones. In particular, there is an increase in aromatase activity per neurone as well as a dramatic increase in the number of neurones expressing the enzyme. Both the functional and morphological changes depend on androgen receptor stimulation for several days in vitro. This conclusion is supported by colocalization studies which reveal a high number of fetal hypothalamic aromatase neurones co-expressing androgen receptor. We conclude that testosterone influences the growth of male hypothalamic neurones containing aromatase at a sensitive period of brain development. Endogenous steroid inhibitors of aromatase, probably formed within the neuroglia, also play a role in the control of oestrogen production. An endogenous 5alpha-reduced metabolite of testosterone, 5alpha-androstanedione, is almost as potent in inhibiting neuronal hypothalamic aromatase activity (Ki = 23 nM) as the synthetic non-steroidal inhibitors such as the imidazole, fadrozole, and the triazoles, arimidex and letrozole. It is clear that the oestrogen-forming capacity of the male hypothalamus has the special characteristics and plasticity of regulation which could affect brain differentiation at specific steroid-sensitive stages in ontogeny.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aromatase / physiology*
  • Brain / embryology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Sex Factors


  • Aromatase