Mechanistic basis and functional roles of long-term plasticity in auditory neurons induced by a brain-generated estrogen

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Journal of Neuroscience








The classic estrogen 17β-estradiol (E2) was recently identified as a novel modulator of hearing function. It is produced rapidly, in an experience-dependent fashion, by auditory cortical neurons of both males and females. This brain-generated E2 enhances the efficiency of auditory coding and improves the neural and behavioral discrimination of auditory cues. Remarkably, the effects of E2 are long-lasting and persist for hours after local rises in hormone levels have subsided. The mechanisms and functional consequences of this E2-induced plasticity of auditory responses are unknown. Here, we addressed these issues in the zebra finch model by combining intracerebral pharmacology, biochemical assays, in vivo neurophysiology in awake animals, and computational and information theoretical approaches. Weshow that auditory experience activates the MAPK pathway in an E2-dependent manner. This effect is mediated by estrogen receptor β (ERβ), which directly associates with MEKK1 to sequentially modulate MEK and ERK activation, where the latter is required for the engagement of downstream molecular targets. We further show that E2-mediated activation of the MAPK cascade is required for the long-lasting enhancement of auditory-evoked responses in the awake brain. Moreover, a functional consequence of this E2/MAPK activation is to sustain enhanced information handling and neural discrimination by auditory neurons for several hours following hormonal challenge. Our results demonstrate that brain-generated E2 engages, via a nongenomic interaction between an estrogen receptor and a kinase, a persistent form of experience-dependent plasticity that enhances the neural coding and discrimination of behaviorally relevant sensory signals in the adult vertebrate brain. ©2012 the authors.

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