Multiple mechanisms control brain aromatase activity at the genomic and non-genomic level

Jacques Balthazart, Michelle Baillien, Thierry D. Charlier, Charlotte A. Cornil, Gregory F. Ball

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Evidence has recently accumulated indicating that aromatase activity in the preoptic area is modulated in parallel by both slow (hours to days) genomic and rapid (minutes to hours) non-genomic mechanisms. We review here these two types of control mechanisms and their potential contribution to various aspects of brain physiology in quail. High levels of aromatase mRNA, protein and activity (AA) are present in the preoptic area of this species where the transcription of aromatase is controlled mainly by steroids. Estrogens acting in synergy with androgens play a key role in this control and both androgen and estrogen receptors (ER; α and β subtypes) are present in the preoptic area even if they are not necessarily co-localized in the same cells as aromatase. Steroids have more pronounced effects on aromatase transcription in males than in females and this sex difference could be caused, in part, by a sexually differentiated expression of the steroid receptor coactivator 1 in this area. The changes in aromatase concentration presumably control seasonal variations as well as sex differences in brain estrogen production. Aromatase activity in hypothalamic homogenates is also rapidly (within minutes) down-regulated by exposure to conditions that enhance protein phosphorylation such as the presence of high concentrations of calcium, magnesium and ATP. Similarly, pharmacological manipulations such as treatment with thapsigargin or stimulation of various neurotransmitter receptors (α-amino-3-hydroxy- methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA), kainate, and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)) leading to enhanced intracellular calcium concentrations depress within minutes the aromatase activity measured in quail preoptic explants. The effects of receptor stimulation are presumably direct: electrophysiological data confirm the presence of these receptors in the membrane of aromatase-expressing cells. Inhibitors of protein kinases interfere with these processes and Western blotting experiments on brain aromatase purified by immunoprecipitation confirm that the phosphorylations regulating aromatase activity directly affect the enzyme rather than another regulatory protein. Accordingly, several phosphorylation consensus sites are present on the deduced amino acid sequence of the recently cloned quail aromatase. Fast changes in the local availability of estrogens in the brain can thus be caused by aromatase phosphorylation so that estrogen could rapidly regulate neuronal physiology and behavior. The rapid as well as slower processes of local estrogen production in the brain thus match well with the genomic and non-genomic actions of steroids in the brain. These two processes potentially provide sufficient temporal variation in the bio-availability of estrogens to support the entire range of established effects for this steroid.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)367-379
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Issue number3-5
StatePublished - Sep 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Calcium
  • Estrogen synthase
  • Glutamate receptors
  • Preoptic area
  • Protein phosphorylations
  • Sexual behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Molecular Biology
  • Endocrinology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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