Contribution to Special Issue on Fast effects of steroids.
There is now compelling evidence for membrane-associated estrogen receptors in hypothalamic neurons that are critical for the hypothalamic control of homeostatic functions. It has been known for some time that estradiol (E2) can rapidly alter hypothalamic neuronal activity within seconds, indicating that some cellular effects can occur via membrane initiated events. However, our understanding of how E2 signals via membrane-associated receptors and how these signals impact physiological functions is only just emerging. Thus, E2 can affect second messenger systems including calcium mobilization and a plethora of kinases to alter cell excitability and even gene transcription in hypothalamic neurons. One population of hypothalamic neurons, the anorexigenic proopiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons, has long been considered to be a target of E2's actions based on gene (Pomc) expression studies. However, we now know that E2 can rapidly alter POMC neuronal activity within seconds and activate several intracellular signaling cascades that ultimately affect gene expression, actions which are critical for maintaining sensitivity to insulin in metabolically stressed states. E2 also affects the orexigenic Neuropeptide Y/Agouti-related Peptide (NPY/AgRP) neurons in similarly rapid but antagonistic manner. Therefore, this review will summarize our current state of knowledge of how E2 signals via rapid membrane-initiated and intracellular signaling cascades in POMC and NPY/AgRP neurons to regulate energy homeostasis.