It is now obvious that the CNS is capable of undergoing a variety of plastic changes at all stages of development. Although the magnitude and distribution of these changes may be more dramatic in the immature animal, the adult brain retains a remarkable capacity for undergoing morphological and functional modifications. Throughout development, as well as in the postpubertal animal, gonadal steroids exert an important influence over the architecture of specific sex steroid-responsive areas, resulting in sexual dimorphisms at both morphological and physiological levels. We are only now beginning to gain insight into the mechanisms involved in gonadal steroid-induced synaptic changes. The number of synaptic inputs to specific neuronal populations is sexually dimorphic and this can be modulated by changes in the sex steroid environment. These modifications can be correlated with other morphological changes, such as glial cell activation, that are occurring simultaneously in the same anatomical area. Indeed, the close physical relationship between glial cells and neuronal synaptic contacts makes them an ideal candidate for participating in this process. Interestingly, not only can the morphology and immunoreactivity of glial cells be modulated by gonadal steroids, but a close negative correlation between the number of synapses and the amount of glial ensheathing of a neuron has been demonstrated, suggesting an active participation of these cells in this process. Glia have sex steroid receptors, are capable of producing and metabolizing steroids, and can produce other neuronal trophic factors in response to sex steroids. Hence, their role in gonadal steroid-induced synaptic plasticity is becoming more apparent. In addition, there is recent evidence that this process may involve certain cell surface molecules, such as the N-CAMs, since a specific isoform of this molecule, previously referred to as the embryonic form, is found in those areas of the brain which maintain the capacity to undergo synaptic remodelling. However, there is much work to be done in order to fully understand this phenomenon and before bringing it into a clinical setting in hopes of treating neurodegenerative diseases or injuries to the nervous system.
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