We assessed the activity of the aromatase enzyme complex in slices of brain from rats by measuring the release of 3H2O from [lβ-3H]testosterone. In hypothalami from 12-day-old rats, the rate of aromatase activity was linear with time and amount of tissue. The reaction was saturated at a substrate concentration of 0.1 μM, and the apparent Km of the reaction was 27 nM. The production of 3H2O was inhibited by 4-hydroxyandrostenedione, with an apparent K; of 29 nM. Aromatase activity was first detected in the diencephalon of 16-day-old fetuses and reached maximum rates in hypothalamic tissue between days 18 and 20 of gestation. The highest rate of activity per mg protein (4.8 pmol h-1 mg protein-1) was observed in the preoptic area (POA) on the 20th day of embryonic development. However, when expressed as a rate per tissue fragment, aromatase activity was as high in the medial basal hypothalamus as in the POA. After day 20 of gestation aromatase activity rapidly decreased in the POA and medial basal hypothalamus of both males and females. The lowest levels were observed between postnatal days 16 and 20. Aromatase activity was not detectable in cerebral cortex and cerebellum at any age studied. Since serum testosterone was higher in males than females during the first 4 days of postnatal life, and since aromatase activity is elevated in the hypothalamus at this time, our results support the current concept that local formation of estrogen mediates testosterone-induced masculinization of the brain during the neonatal period. However, our results also indicate that failure of the rat brain to undergo complete sexual differentiation before birth cannot be due to an inability of the fetal hypothalamus to aromatize androgens, since aromatase activity was higher in the hypothalamus than in any other fetal tissue.
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