Estrogen receptor β (ERβ) is expressed at high levels in both neurons and glial cells of the central nervous system. The development of ERβ knockout (BERKO) mice has provided a model to study the function of this nuclear receptor in the brain. We have found that the brains of BERKO mice show several morphological abnormalities. There is a regional neuronal hypocellularity in the brain, with a severe neuronal deficit in the somatosensory cortex, especially layers II, III, IV, and V, and a remarkable proliferation of astroglial cells in the limbic system but not in the cortex. These abnormalities are evident as early as 2 mo of age in BERKO mice. As BERKO mice age, the neuronal deficit becomes more pronounced, and, by 2 yr of age, there is degeneration of neuronal cell bodies throughout the brain. This is particularly evident in the substantia nigra. We conclude that ERβ is necessary for neuronal survival and speculate that this gene could have an important influence on the development of degenerative diseases of the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, as well as those resulting from trauma and stroke in the brain
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