In middle-aged women, follicular depletion is a critical factor mediating the menopausal transition; however, all levels of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis contribute to the age-related decline in reproductive function. To help elucidate the complex interactions between the ovary and brain during middle-age that lead to the onset of the menopause, we utilize animal models which share striking similarities in reproductive physiology. Our results show that during middle-age, prior to any overt irregularities in estrous cyclicity, the ability of 17β-estradiol (E2) to modulate the cascade of neurochemical events required for preovulatory gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) release and a luteinizing hormone (LH) surge is diminished. Middle-aged female rats experience a delay in and an attenuation of LH release in response to E2. Additionally, although we do not observe a decrease in GnRH neuron number until a very advanced age, E2-mediated GnRH neuronal activation declines during the earliest stages of age-related reproductive decline. Numerous hypothalamic neuropeptides and neurochemical stimulatory inputs (i.e., glutamate, norepinephrine (NE), and vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP)) that drive the E2-mediated GnRH/LH surge appear to dampen with age or lack the precise temporal coordination required for a specific pattern of GnRH secretion, while inhibitory signals such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and opioid peptides remain unchanged or elevated during the afternoon of proestrus. These changes, occurring at the level of the hypothalamus, lead to irregular estrous cycles and, ultimately, the cessation of reproductive function. Taken together, our studies indicate that the hypothalamus is an important contributor to age-related female reproductive decline.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology