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The Synthetic Steroid Tibolone Exerts Sex-Specific Regulation of Astrocyte Phagocytosis Under Basal Conditions and After an Inflammatory Challenge

Andrea Crespo-Castrillo 1, Luis-Miguel Garcia-Segura 1 2, Maria-Angeles Arevalo 3 4

DOI: 10.1186/s12974-020-1719-6

Background: Tibolone is a synthetic steroid used in clinical practice for the treatment of climacteric symptoms and osteoporosis. Active metabolites of tibolone, generated in target tissues, have an affinity for estrogen and androgen receptors. Astrocytes are direct targets for estrogenic compounds and previous studies have shown that tibolone protects brain cortical neurons in association with a reduction in reactive astrogliosis in a mouse model of traumatic brain injury. Since phagocytosis is a crucial component of the neuroprotective function exerted by astrocytes, in the present study, we have assessed whether tibolone regulates phagocytosis in primary astrocytes incubated with brain-derived cellular debris.

Methods: Male and female astrocyte cell cultures were obtained from newborn (P0-P2) female and male Wistar rats. Astrocytic phagocytosis was first characterized using carboxylate beads, Escherichia coli particles, or brain-derived cellular debris. Then, the effect of tibolone on the phagocytosis of Cy3-conjugated cellular debris was quantified by measuring the intensity of Cy3 dye-emitted fluorescence in a given GFAP immunoreactive area. Before the phagocytosis assays, astrocytes were incubated with tibolone in the presence or absence of estrogen or androgen receptor antagonists or an inhibitor of the enzyme that synthesizes estradiol. The effect of tibolone on phagocytosis was analyzed under basal conditions and after inflammatory stimulation with lipopolysaccharide.

Results: Tibolone stimulated phagocytosis of brain-derived cellular debris by male and female astrocytes, with the effect being more pronounced in females. The effect of tibolone in female astrocytes was blocked by a selective estrogen receptor β antagonist and by an androgen receptor antagonist. None of these antagonists affected tibolone-induced phagocytosis in male astrocytes. In addition, the inhibition of estradiol synthesis in the cultures enhanced the stimulatory effect of tibolone on phagocytosis in male astrocytes but blocked the effect of the steroid in female cells under basal conditions. However, after inflammatory stimulation, the inhibition of estradiol synthesis highly potentiated the stimulation of phagocytosis by tibolone, particularly in female astrocytes.

Conclusions: Tibolone exerts sex-specific regulation of phagocytosis in astrocytes of both sexes, both under basal conditions and after inflammatory stimulation.