Attenuated hypothalamic responses to α-melanocyte stimulating hormone during pregnancy in the rat

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During pregnancy, a state of positive energy balance develops to support the growing fetus and to deposit fat in preparation for the subsequent metabolic demands of lactation. As part of this maternal adaptation, the satiety response to the anorectic peptide α-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH) is suppressed. To investigate whether pregnancy is associated with changes in the response of hypothalamic α-MSH target neurons, non-pregnant and pregnant rats were treated with α-MSH or vehicle and c-fos expression in hypothalamic nuclei was then examined. Furthermore, the firing rate of supraoptic nucleus (SON) oxytocin neurons, a known α-MSH responsive neuronal population, was examined in non-pregnant and pregnant rats following α-MSH treatment. Intracerebroventricular injection of α-MSH significantly increased the number of c-fos-positive cells in the paraventricular, arcuate and ventromedial hypothalamic nuclei in non-pregnant rats, but no significant increase was observed in any of these regions in pregnant rats. In the SON, α-MSH did induce expression of c-fos during pregnancy, but this was significantly reduced compared to that observed in the non-pregnant group. Furthermore, during pregnancy, SON oxytocin neurons did not demonstrate the characteristic α-MSH-induced inhibition of firing rate that was observed in non-pregnant animals. Melanocortin receptor mRNA levels during pregnancy were similar to non-pregnant animals, suggesting that receptor down-regulation is unlikely to be a mechanism underlying the attenuated responses to α-MSH during pregnancy. Given the known functions of α-MSH in the hypothalamus, the attenuated responses will facilitate adaptive changes in appetite regulation and oxytocin secretion during pregnancy.

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