The reproductive axis undergoes alterations during aging, resulting in acyclicity and the loss of reproductive function. In the hypothalamus, changes intrinsic to GnRH neurons may play a critical role in this process, as may changes in inputs to GnRH neurons from neurotransmitters such as glutamate. We investigated the effects of age and reproductive status on neuroendocrine glutamatergic NMDA receptors (NRs), their regulation of GnRH neurons, and their expression on GnRH neurons, in female rats. First, we quantified NR subunit messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in preoptic area-anterior hypothalamus (POA-AH) and medial basal hypothalamus (MBH), the sites of GnRH perikarya and neuroterminals, respectively. In POA-AH, NR1 mRNA levels varied little with age or reproductive status. NR2a and NR2b mRNA levels decreased significantly between cycling and acyclic rats. In MBH, NR mRNAs all increased with aging, particularly in acyclic animals. Second, we tested the effects of N-methyl-D,L-aspartate (NMA) on GnRH mRNA levels in POA-AH of aging rats. NMA elevated GnRH mRNA levels in young rats, but decreased them in middle-aged rats. Third, we quantified expression of the NR1 subunit on GnRH perikarya in aging rats using double label immunocytochemistry. NR1 expression on GnRH cell bodies varied with age and reproductive status, with 30%, 19%, and 46% of GnRH somata double labeled with NR1 in young proestrous, middle-aged proestrous, and middle-aged persistent estrous rats, respectively. Thus, 1) the expression of hypothalamic NR subunit mRNAs correlates with reproductive status; 2) changes in NR subunit mRNA levels, if reflected by changes in protein levels, may result in alterations in the stoichiometry of the NR during aging, with possible physiological consequences; 3) the effects of NR activation on GnRH mRNA switches from stimulatory to inhibitory during reproductive aging; and 4) expression of the NR1 subunit on GnRH perikarya changes with reproductive status. These molecular, physiological, and cellular neuroendocrine changes are proposed to be involved in the transition to acyclicity in aging female rats.
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