Estrogens Rapidly Enhance Neural Plasticity and Learning
This thesis examines the rapid, non-genomic effects of estrogens on neural plasticity and learning. Estrogens are classically known to affect gene transcription events, however they have more recently been found to also rapidly activate second messenger systems within 1hr of administration. Therefore, we first examined the rapid effects of 17β-estradiol, and an estrogen receptor (ER) α and ERβ agonist on three different learning paradigms: object placement, object recognition, and social recognition. We found that both systemic injections and intrahippocampal delivery of 17β-estradiol and the ERα agonist improved performance on all 3 learning paradigms within 40min of hormone administration. However, the ERβ agonist administered systemically or intrahippocampally, improved performance only on the object placement learning paradigm, while having no effect on object recognition, and impairing social recognition at high doses. To elucidate how estrogens might rapidly affect learning, we examined how estrogens rapidly affect the neural plasticity of CA1 hippocampal neurons. We found that 17β-estradiol and the ERα agonist increased dendritic spine density in CA1 hippocampal neurons within 40min of administration, suggesting that estrogens rapidly increase the density of synapses within this brain region. Conversely, the ERβ agonist did not affect spine density, or decreased spine density. In addition, by using whole-cell patch clamp recordings of CA1 pyramidal neurons, we were able to determine that 17β-estradiol and the ERα agonist rapidly reduced AMPA receptor (but not NMDA receptor) mediated membrane depolarizations after 15min of hormone application. Similar to above, the ERβ agonist had no effect on AMPA or NMDA receptor mediated membrane depolarizations. These data suggest that estrogens rapidly promote the development of immature synapses (which contain low levels of synaptic AMPA receptors) within the CA1 hippocampus. Immature spines provide synaptic sites at which new memories can be stored and are thought of as “learning spines” (Kasai et al, 2003). Therefore, estrogens (through ERα) may rapidly induce the formation of hippocampal immature spines to promote learning.