The neural androgen receptor: A therapeutic target for myelin repair in chronic demyelination

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Myelin regeneration is a major therapeutic goal in demyelinating diseases, and the failure to remyelinate rapidly has profound consequences for the health of axons and for brain function. However, there is no efficient treatment for stimulating myelin repair, and current therapies are limited to anti-inflammatory agents. Males are less likely to develop multiple sclerosis than females, but often have a more severe disease course and reach disability milestones at an earlier age than females, and these observations have spurred interest in the potential protective effects of androgens. Here, we demonstrate that testosterone treatment efficiently stimulates the formation of new myelin and reverses myelin damage in chronic demyelinated brain lesions, resulting from the long-term administration of cuprizone, which is toxic for oligodendrocytes. In addition to the strong effect of testosterone on myelin repair, the number of activated astrocytes and microglial cells returned to low control levels, indicating a reduction of neuroinflammatory responses. We also identify the neural androgen receptor as a novel therapeutic target for myelin recovery. After the acute demyelination of cerebellar slices in organotypic culture, the remyelinating actions of testosterone could be mimicked by 5a-dihydrotestosterone, a metabolite that is not converted to oestrogens, and blocked by the androgen receptor antagonist flutamide. Testosterone treatment also failed to promote remyelination after chronic cuprizone-induced demyelination in mice with a non-functional androgen receptor. Importantly, testosterone did not stimulate the formation of new myelin sheaths after specific knockout of the androgen receptor in neurons and macroglial cells. Thus, the neural brain androgen receptor is required for the remyelination effect of testosterone, whereas the presence of the receptor in microglia and in peripheral tissues is not sufficient to enhance remyelination. The potent synthetic testosterone analogue 7α-methyl-19-nortestosterone, which has been developed for long-term male contraception and androgen replacement therapy in hypogonadal males and does not stimulate prostate growth, also efficiently promoted myelin repair. These data establish the efficacy of androgens as remyelinating agents and qualify the brain androgen receptor as a promising drug target for remyelination therapy, thus providing the preclinical rationale for a novel therapeutic use of androgens in males with multiple sclerosis.