Gender differences exist in the development of the nigrostriatal dopamine system, and in the incidence and course of pediatric and adult neuropsychiatric diseases in which this system is implicated. The medium size spiny neuron (MSN) is the major output neuron of the caudate nucleus. It receives a large dopaminergic input from the substantia nigra, and 96% of the MSNs express DARPP-32, a dopamine and cyclic AMP-regulated phosphoprotein and key mediator of dopamine function. There are few examples, however, of direct effects of sex hormones, including 17β-estradiol (E2), on the MSN. We report that in vitro, E2 (10–50 nM) promotes MSN phenotypic maturation, as determined by increased soma size, neurite length, and DARPP-32 protein levels. Treatment with the ‘anti-estrogen’ ICI 182,780 or the partial-agonist tamoxifen also increases DARPP-32 levels, but when added to E2, ICI 182,780 only prevents the increase in DARPP-32 levels and increase in soma size and neurite length. Surprisingly, maturation effects are more robust in cells derived exclusively from female embryos. Western blot analysis of protein lysates and immunocytochemistry of cultured MSNs reveals the presence of the estrogen receptor β (ERβ). These data suggest that ERβ may mediate the differentiating effect of E2 on embryonic MSNs, and provide new avenues of investigation for the role of sex hormones in the development of the striatum and in diseases affecting the basal ganglia.
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