Metabolic Programming of Puberty: Sexually Dimorphic Responses to Early Nutritional Challenges

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Body energy stores and metabolic cues influence the onset of puberty. However, the pubertal impact of early nutritional challenges has been only fragmentarily addressed. We evaluated here the consequences, in terms of pubertal timing and hormonal markers, of various nutritional manipulations during pre- or postnatal maturation in rats of both sexes. Males and females were submitted to gestational undernutrition (UNG) or peripubertal (SUB) subnutrition or were raised in large (LL; underfeeding) or small (SL; overfeeding) litters. In addition, groups of UNG, LL, and SL rats were fed on a high-fat diet (HFD) after weaning. Postnatal overfeeding resulted in higher body weights (BWs) during pubertal transition in both sexes, but only SL males displayed overtly advanced external signs of puberty. Postnatal underfeeding persistently decreased BW gain during puberty, yet the magnitude of pubertal delay was greater in LL males. In contrast, regardless of postnatal nutrition, HFD tended to advance the onset of puberty in females but did not alter pubertal timing in males. Likewise, SUB females displayed a marked delay in BW gain and puberty onset, whereas despite similar reduction in BW, SUB males showed normal timing of puberty. These sex divergences were also detected in various hormonal and metabolic indices so that postnatal overnutrition consistently increased LH, FSH, leptin, and insulin levels only in pubertal females, whereas HFD decreased gonadotropin levels in SL females but increased them in SL males. Notably, UNG rats did not show signs of delayed puberty but displayed a striking sex dimorphism in serum insulin/glucose levels, regardless of the diet, so that only UNG males had signs of presumable insulin resistance. Our data disclose important sex differences in the impact of various early nutritional challenges on the timing of puberty, which may help to explain the different trends of altered puberty and related comorbidities between sexes.

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