Researchers have uncovered an unexpected role for estrogen receptors in the brain, and that role is to keep inflammation under control. The findings from a University of California (UC) study may have important implications for the treatment of multiple sclerosis and many other neurodegenerative diseases. They might also help to explain why women are three times more susceptible to developing MS than men are, researchers say.
"We've really discovered an alternative pathway for estrogen receptors in the brain," said Christopher Glass of UC,San Diego.
Estrogen receptors are primarily known to activate programs of gene expression, but in this case estrogen receptors are critical for turning off genes that would otherwise lead to chronic inflammation.
Although MS is a very complicated disease, the findings suggest drugs targeted at certain ER receptors might effectively shut down the inflammation that goes along with the disease, the researchers suggest. The findings might also help to explain the strong sex bias in MS, which disproportionately affects relatively young women.
"Although the estrogen receptors (ERs) have been implicated in the etiology of MS, no clear molecular mechanisms link them to relapsing-remitting MS," wrote David Gosselin and Serge Rivest in an accompanying commentary, noting that the recent research may fill that gap. In addition to explaining why females develop MS more often than males, Gosselin and Rivest continued, the findings also suggest that birth control medications and environmental factors such as estrogen analogs derived from plants might also promote development of the disease.
These findings were reported in the May 13 issue of the Cell Press journal Cell.