Presence of aromatase and estrogen receptor alpha in the inner ear of zebra finches

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Sex differences in song behavior and in the neural system controlling song in songbirds are well documented but relatively little is known about sex differences in hearing. We recently demonstrated the existence of sex differences in auditory brainstem responses in a songbird species, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). Many sex differences are regulated by sex steroid hormone action either during ontogeny or in adulthood. As a first step to test the possible implication of sex steroids in the control of sex differences in the zebra finch auditory system, we evaluated via immunocytochemistry whether estrogens are produced and act in the zebra finch inner ear. Specifically we examined the distribution of aromatase, the enzyme converting testosterone into an estrogen, and of estrogen receptors of the alpha subtype (ERα) in adult zebra finch inner ears. The anatomy of the basilar papillae was visualized by fluorescein–phalloidin, which delineated the actin structure of hair cells and supporting cells at their apical surface. Whole mount preparations of basilar papillae stained by immunocytochemistry revealed in both males and females an abundant aromatase distribution in the cytoplasm of hair cells, while ERα was identified in the nuclei of hair cells and of underlying supporting cells. Double-labeled preparations confirmed the extensive co-localization of aromatase and ERα in the vast majority of the hair cells. These results are consistent with studies on non-avian species, suggesting a role for estrogens in auditory function. These findings are also consistent with the notion that estrogens may contribute to a sex difference in hearing. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of the presence of aromatase and of the co-localization of aromatase and ERα in the sensory epithelium of the inner ear in any animal model.

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