Sex hormone precursor inhibits brain inflammation

May 12, 2011, University of California - San Diego
These are glial cells in the cerebellum, magnified 400 times. Credit: Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopic Imaging Research, UC San Diego

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have discovered a steroid hormone that inhibits inflammation in the brain. The findings, to be published in the May 13 issue of the journal Cell, have implications for understanding the exaggerated inflammatory responses that are characteristic features of numerous neurodegenerative diseases.

The discovery that the ADIOL, (5-androsten-3Β-17Β-diol), a precursor of androgens and estrogens, modulates inflammation induced by microglia cells could eventually lead to new treatments for patients with neurodegenerative conditions in which inflammation plays a pathogenic role. In addition, levels of ADIOL in blood or other body fluids might be useful for predicting risk or responses to drugs that mimic its actions.

The senior author of the paper is Christopher Glass, MD, PhD, professor of the department of cellular and molecular medicine and the department of medicine. Lead author is Kaoru Saijo, MD, PhD, and an associate project scientist in the Glass lab.

Though neurons get the headlines, they thrive only with the support of other cell types, among them microglia and astrocyte cells. Microglial cells help the central nervous system respond to infection and injury. Under normal conditions, they exist in a resting state, quietly but constantly surveying their surrounding environment for tell-tale indications of microbial invasion or tissue damage. Once detected, microglia initiate an inflammatory response, kick-starting immune system and tissue repair processes. Astrocytes amplify the immune reaction launched by microglia.

The microglia-astrocyte activation is vital to an effective immune response and damage repair, but if the resulting inflammation induced by these cells is not controlled or goes on too long, it can result in damage and death to neurons. Inflammation run amok is linked to many , such as Parkinson's disease, HIV-associated dementia, Alzheimer's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), and some inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS).

The new findings suggest that in healthy brains, microglia inflammation is modulated by the production of the steroid hormone ADIOL, which instructs support cells to calm down and return to their quiescent state. ADIOL works by binding to a transcription factor called estrogen receptor Β, which gets its name because of its similarity to estrogen receptor Β and its ability to bind to the female sex hormone estrogen. Unexpectedly, while ADIOL binding causes estrogen receptor α to execute an anti-inflammatory set of instructions to microglia and astrocytes, estrogen binding does not. Because of this, estrogens can actually antagonize the anti-inflammatory actions of ADIOL.

Glass and Saijo made their discovery based upon initial studies with John Katzenellenbogen, PhD, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kaztenellenbogen's laboratory developed a number of synthetic small molecules that could bind very tightly and specifically to estrogen receptor .

Saijo at UC San Diego tested each of these compounds and found that some were potent inhibitors of of microglia and astrocytes, while others were not. When one of these compounds was tested in vivo, it was found to strongly inhibit inflammation in the brain and to induce remission in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis.

Although estrogen itself can be neuroprotective, its lack of ability to induce the anti-inflammatory activity of estrogen receptor  led to a search for endogenous or internal molecules that might have similar activities to the synthetic compounds. Saijo worked with Andrew Li, MD, assistant adjunct professor of medicine at UC San Diego, to ultimately identify ADIOL as the endogenous regulator of  activity. Notably, Saijo and Li found that the amount of ADIOL that could be produced by microglia was regulated by signals that control the magnitude and duration of inflammatory responses

"We think it possible that mutations in the genes encoding the key enzymes for the generation of ADIOL, or their inappropriate down-regulation, could contribute to pathological forms of inflammation," Glass said.

These findings raise the possibility that women are more susceptible to certain inflammatory diseases, such as MS, because their higher levels of estrogens potentially antagonize the anti-inflammatory actions of ADIOL in the brain. A similar argument might also help explain some of the adverse effects of estrogen administration on the brain in post-menopausal women.

Glass noted, however, that much research remains to be done. The precise relationship between and neurodegenerative disease, for example, is not fully understood. Similarly, it's not known whether people naturally produce different amounts of ADIOL. And researchers have only identified the ADIOL-estrogen connection in an MS mouse model. Glass said he and colleagues will next look at animal models for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and HIV-dementia.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production

January 18, 2018
T cells play a key role in the body's immune response against pathogens. As a new class of therapeutic approaches, T cells are being harnessed to fight cancer, promising more precise, longer-lasting mitigation than traditional, ...

Weight flux alters molecular profile, study finds

January 17, 2018
The human body undergoes dramatic changes during even short periods of weight gain and loss, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Secrets of longevity protein revealed in new study

January 17, 2018
Named after the Greek goddess who spun the thread of life, Klotho proteins play an important role in the regulation of longevity and metabolism. In a recent Yale-led study, researchers revealed the three-dimensional structure ...

The HLF gene protects blood stem cells by maintaining them in a resting state

January 17, 2018
The HLF gene is necessary for maintaining blood stem cells in a resting state, which is crucial for ensuring normal blood production. This has been shown by a new research study from Lund University in Sweden published in ...

Magnetically applied MicroRNAs could one day help relieve constipation

January 17, 2018
Constipation is an underestimated and debilitating medical issue related to the opioid epidemic. As a growing concern, researchers look to new tools to help patients with this side effect of opioid use and aging.

Researchers devise decoy molecule to block pain where it starts

January 16, 2018
For anyone who has accidentally injured themselves, Dr. Zachary Campbell not only sympathizes, he's developing new ways to blunt pain.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.