, Volume 22, Issue 5-6, pp 479-500

Sexual Differentiation of the Brain: Genes, Estrogen, and Neurotrophic Factors

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Abstract

Based on evidence obtained during the past 50 years, the current hypothesis to explain the sexual dimorphism of structure and function in the brain of vertebrates maintains that these differences are produced by the epigenetic action of gonadal hormones. However, evidence has progressively accumulated suggesting that genetic mechanisms controlling sexual-specific neuronal characteristics precede, or occur in parallel with, hormonal effects.

1. In cultures of hypothalamic neurons taken from gestation day 16 (GD16) embryos, treatment of sexually segregated cultures with estradiol (E2) induces axon growth in neurons from male neurons, but not from female neurons. In these cultures treatment with E2 increased the levels of tyrosine kinase type B (TrkB) and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) receptors in male but not in female neurons. This and other sex differences cannot be explained by differences in hormonal environment, because the donor embryos were obtained when gonadal secretion of steroids is just beginning, before the perinatal surge of testosterone that determines development of the male brain beginning at GD17/18.

2. The response to estrogen is contingent upon coculture with heterotopic glia (mostly astrocytes) from a target region (amygdala) harvested from same-sex fetuses at GD16, whereas in the presence of homotopic glia or in cultures without glia, E2 had no effect. It was concluded that the axogenic effect of E2 depends on interaction between neurons and glia from a target region and that neurons from fetal male donors appear to mature earlier than neurons from females, a differentiated response that takes place prior to divergent exposure to gonadal secretions.

3. The effects of target and nontarget glia-conditioned media (CM) on the E2-induced growth of neuronal processes of hypothalamic neurons obtained from sexually segregated fetal donors were also studied. Estrogen added to media conditioned by target glia modified the number of primary neurites and the growth of axons of hypothalamic neurons of males but not of females.

4. Neither the Type III steroidal receptor blocker tamoxifen nor Type I antiestrogen ICI 182,780 prevented the axogenic effects of the hormone. Estradiol made membrane-impermeable by conjugation to a protein of high molecular weight (E2-BSA) preserved its axogenic capacity, suggesting the possibility of a membrane effect responsible for the action of E2.

5. Western blot analysis of the tyrosine kinase type A (TrkA), type B (TrkB), type C (TrkC), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I R) receptors in extracts from homogenates of cultured hypothalamic neurons showed that in cultures of male-derived neurons grown with E2 and CM from target glia, the amounts of TrkB and IGF-I R increased notably. Densitometric quantification showed that these cultures had more TrkB than cultures with CM alone or E2 alone. On the contrary, in cultures of female-derived neurons, the presence of CM alone induced maximal levels of TrkB, which were not further increased by E2; female-derived neurons in all conditions did not contain IGF-I R. Levels of TrkC were not modified by any experimental condition in male- or female-derived cultures and Trk A was not found in the homogenates.

These results are compared with similar data from other laboratories and integrated in a model for the confluent interaction of estrogen and neurotrophic factors released by glia that may contribute to the sexual differentiation of the brain.