Age-related changes in sexual function and steroid-hormone receptors in the medial preoptic area of male rats
Testosterone is the main circulating steroid hormone in males, and acts to facilitate sexual behavior via both reduction to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and aromatization to estradiol. The mPOA is a key site involved in mediating actions of androgens and estrogens in the control of masculine sexual behavior, but the respective roles of these hormones is not fully understood. As males age they show impairments in sexual function, and a decreased facilitation of behavior by steroid hormones compared to younger animals. We hypothesized that an anatomical substrate for these behavioral changes is a decline in expression and/or activation of hormone receptor-sensitive cells in the mPOA. We tested this by quantifying and comparing numbers of AR- and ERα-containing cells, and Fos as a marker of activated neurons, in the mPOA of mature (4–5 months) and aged (12–13 months) male rats, assessed one hour after copulation to one ejaculation. Numbers of AR- and ERα cells did not change with age or after sex, but the percentage of AR- and ERα-cells that co-expressed Fos were significantly up-regulated by sex, independent of age. Age effects were found for the percentage of Fos cells that co-expressed ERα (up-regulated in the central mPOA) and the percentage of Fos cells co-expressing AR in the posterior mPOA. Interestingly, serum estradiol concentrations positively correlated with intromission latency in aged but not mature animals. These data show that the aging male brain continues to have high expression and activation of both AR and ERα in the mPOA with copulation, raising the possibility that differences in relationships between hormones, behavior, and neural activation may underlie some age-related impairments.