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 cortico-amygdalar 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 (pre-pubertal) 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. Taken together, these data indicate that neuron-derived E2 modulates synaptic plasticity in rodent BLA sex-dependently. As protein expression levels of AROM, estrogen (ERα) 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.
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 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 side effects of AROM inhibitors, which are frequently used for breast cancer therapy.
Conflict of interest: Authors declare there are no competing financial interests
The authors wish to thank B. Asmus, B. Holstermann, K. Sander and C. Schröder-Birkner for their excellent technical support, and Dr. Horst Ehmke (Institute for Cellular and Integrative Physiology, University Hamburg, Medical Center) for the permission to perform electrophysiological studies in his laboratory. This study was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Ru436/4-1, Ru436/6-1, GMR; FOR2419, CEG) and Landesforschungsförderung Hamburg (CEG, GMR).