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Specialized Brain Cells Produce Estrogen That Protects Neurons after Injury

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Process inhibits cell-damaging inflammation in brains of songbirds

Researchers have uncovered new information on how certain estrogen - producing cells in the brain s of songbirds reduce inflammation that leads to neural damage after a brain injury, according to a study released November 17 at Neuroscience 2014, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

“We’ve known for a while that the brain can protect its neurons from the chronic consequences of a brain injury by synthesizing estrogen in glial cells,” said co - author Colin Saldanha, PhD, of American University in Washington, D C. “But until now, how this protective process works hasn’t been well understood.”

As previous research has shown, when neurons become damaged from either injury or disease, the brain secretes small proteins called cytokines, which trigger an inflammatory response. The response is beneficial at first because it activates the immune system, but chronic inflammation can damage neurons and lead to memory, mood, and movement problems. Stopping that inflammation is therefore a key focus of neuroscience research.

Through a series of experiments, Saldanha and his colleagues found that certain glial cells in the songbird brain respond to an injury by rapidly and dramatically producing a protein (aromatase) that is vital for estrogen production . The estrogen appears to lower cytokines to normal levels, thus preventing chronic inflammation. Interestingly, the particular inflammatory cytokine most affected by the estrogen was different in the male and female brain, which suggests the hormone’s anti-inflammatory role may work in sex-specific ways.

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Society for Neuroscience press release