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Novartis Found Symp. 2000;230:221-34; discussion 234-8.

The female sex hormone oestrogen as neuroprotectant: activities at various levels.

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Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany.


The female sex hormone oestradiol (oestrogen) is a steroidal compound that binds to specific intracellular receptors which act as transcription factors. Oestrogen displays many of its effects by the classical mode of action through receptor binding, transactivation and binding to consensus oestrogen response elements on DNA. Although the primary role of oestrogen as an ovarian steroid was thought to be the regulation of sex differentiation and maturation, since oestrogen receptors are expressed in a variety of other tissues besides sex organs, oestrogen is believed to exert multiple activities in several target sites throughout the body, including the nervous system. In the brain oestrogens have multiple activities. Potential neuroprotective functions of oestrogens are being intensively studied and it is becoming increasingly clear that oestrogens are (1) neuroprotective hormones acting via oestrogen receptor-dependent pathways at the genomic level and (2) neuroprotective steroidal structures acting independently of the activation of specific oestrogen receptors. One striking activity of the molecule oestradiol is its intrinsic antioxidant activity which makes it a potential chemical shield for neurons. Nerve cells frequently encounter oxidative challenges during the normal physiology, but also under pathophysiological conditions. Oxidative stress has been implicated in a variety of neurodegenerative disorders including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. It is important to stress that the antioxidant neuroprotective activity of oestrogens is independent of oestrogen receptor activation, since oestrogen derivatives and aromatic alcohols that do not bind to oestrogen receptors share the same antioxidant neuroprotective activity. Although this effect of oestrogens can clearly be separated from oestrogen receptor binding, oestrogens may interact with intracellular signalling pathways, such as the mitogen activated protein kinase, cyclic AMP pathways, and with the activity of the redox-sensitive transcription factor NF-kappa B.

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