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J R Seckl and T Olsson


Increased glucocorticoid secretion is a key feature of the stress response, serving to mobilise energy substrates, inhibit non-vital processes and restore stress effector systems. However, chronic glucocorticoid excess (in Cushing's disease or during pharmacotherapy) is associated with a broad spectrum of deleterious effects including diabetes mellitus, reproductive failure, hypertension, osteoporosis, immunosuppression, myopathy, growth impairment and, not least, affective and cognitive dysfunction. Clearly therefore, the autoregulatory (negative feedback) actions of glucocorticoids upon the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are of crucial importance.

Glucocorticoids act, in large part, by binding to intracellular receptors. There are two types, mineralocorticoid (MR, type I) and glucocorticoid (GR, type II) (McEwen et al. 1986) receptors. Ligand-activated receptors function as nuclear transcription factors, attaching to specific DNA sequences and regulating target gene expression. Interactions with other nuclear factors, notably AP-1 (Pfahl 1993) and cyclic AMP response element binding protein (Stauber et al. 1992), may also occur and modulate

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J. R. Seckl and S. L. Lightman


Diurnal rhythms in the concentrations of vasopressin (AVP) and oxytocin in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) differ between species and are unrelated to changes in the levels of these hormones in the peripheral circulation. We have investigated neurohypophysial hormone rhythms in the CSF of the conscious goat by determining whether they are entrained by daily cycles of light and darkness and by assessing the effect of the suppression of plasma cortisol.

Goats were implanted with cisternal cannulae under halothane anaesthesia and allowed to recover. They were accustomed to a 12 h light:12 h darkness lighting cycle (lights on from 07.30 to 19.30 h). After initial serial CSF and plasma sampling the daily cycle of light and darkness was reversed. Three goats were kept in constant light for 8 days before the study and five were given dexamethasone (5 mg/12 h) for 4 days.

There was a significant (P < 0·01) diurnal variation in CSF concentrations of AVP, with a maximum of 3·6 ± 0·8 (s.e.m.) pmol/l at 12.00 h and a minimum of 1·4 ± 0·3 pmol/l at 24.00 h. There were no significant changes in CSF concentrations of oxytocin or plasma AVP. After the light:darkness cycle was reversed the AVP rhythm in the CSF was disrupted after 24 h and reversed after 8 days. The diurnal rhythm of AVP in CSF persisted in animals exposed to constant light. After treatment with dexamethasone plasma cortisol was suppressed and showed no diurnal rhythm but the AVP rhythm in CSF remained unchanged.

J. Endocr. (1987) 114, 477–482

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J. R. Seckl and S. L. Lightman


We have investigated the secretion of oxytocin and arginine vasopressin (AVP) during vaginocervical stimulation in the conscious goat and examined the effect of the opioid antagonist naloxone on peptide release to this stimulus. Goats were implanted with guide tubes overlying the cisterna magna under anaesthesia and allowed to recover. Vaginocervical stimulation for 60 s resulted in a marked (P < 0·01) release of oxytocin into the plasma but neither plasma AVP nor cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) concentrations of oxytocin changed significantly.

In a second series of experiments, unoperated goats were infused with saline or naloxone (4 mg bolus + 12 mg/h) in random order on two separate occasions. Infusion of naloxone had no effect on basal plasma concentrations of oxytocin or AVP. There was a marked and significant (P < 0·01) potentiation of oxytocin secretion following vaginocervical stimulation in animals infused with naloxone. Naloxone-infused animals showed a significant (P < 0·01) rise in plasma AVP after stimulation but plasma AVP did not change in the saline-infused controls.

We conclude that vaginocervical stimulation leads to the selective release of oxytocin from the neurohypophysis without affecting concentrations of oxytocin in the CSF. Endogenous opioids inhibit the stimulated secretion of oxytocin and AVP in vivo in response to vaginocervical stimulation in the goat.

J. Endocr. (1987) 115, 317–322

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J. R. Seckl and S. L. Lightman


The release of oxytocin into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and plasma of lactating goats was studied following implantation of cisternal and lateral ventricular cannulae. Hand milking was associated with a significant increase in plasma concentrations of oxytocin, but no change in plasma concentrations of vasopressin or CSF concentrations of oxytocin. Intracerebroventricular (i.c.v.) infusion of oxytocin itself (1 pmol/min for 60 min) had no effect on basal plasma levels of oxytocin. It did, however, markedly potentiate the milking-induced increase in plasma oxytocin above the levels achieved during i.c.v. infusion of artificial CSF alone. In the goat, therefore, milking results in a selective release of oxytocin into the plasma, and this release can be potentiated by the presence of increased concentrations of oxytocin in the CSF.

J. Endocr. (1988) 116, 273–277

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P W F Hadoke, R S Lindsay, J R Seckl, B R Walker, and C J Kenyon

Excessive exposure to glucocorticoids during gestation reduces birth weight and induces permanent hypertension in adulthood. The mechanisms underlying this programmed elevation of blood pressure have not been established. We hypothesised that prenatal glucocorticoid exposure may lead to vascular dysfunction in adulthood. Pregnant rats received dexamethasone (Dex) (100 μg/kg, s.c.) or vehicle (control) daily throughout pregnancy. Blood pressure was elevated (students t-test, unpaired; P < 0.05) in adult female offspring (aged 12–16 weeks) of Dex-treated mothers (148.0 ± 3.6 mmHg, n=10) compared with the control group (138.0 ± 2.5 mmHg, n=8). Vascular responsiveness in aortae and mesenteric arteries was differentially affected by prenatal Dex: aortae were less responsive to angiotensin II, whereas mesenteric arteries were more responsive to norepinephrine, vasopressin and potassium (mesenteric arteries respond poorly to angiotensin II in vitro). Acetylcholine-mediated, endothelium-dependent relaxation was similar in both groups. Prenatal exposure to Dex had no effect on blood pressure or aldosterone response to acute (15 min, i.v.) infusion of angiotensin II (75 ng/kg per min). In contrast, chronic (2-week, s.c.) infusion of angiotensin II (100 ng/kg per min) produced a greater elevation (P < 0.05) of blood pressure in Dex-treated rats (150.0 ± 3.6 mmHg) than in controls (135.3 ± 5.4 mmHg), and aldosterone levels were higher in Dex-treated animals. There was no angiotensin II-induced medial hypertrophy/hyperplasia in mesenteric arteries from Dex-treated rats. These results indicate that vascular function is altered in a region-specific manner in rats with glucocorticoid-programmed hypertension. Despite a striking increase in mesenteric artery contraction in Dex-treated rats, in vivo studies suggest that abnormalities of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, rather than enhanced vascular contractility, may be responsible for the elevation of blood pressure in these animals.

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J. R. Seckl, R. C. Dow, S. C. Low, C. R. W. Edwards, and G. Fink


Steroid-metabolizing enzymes modulate the effects of androgens on brain differentiation and function, but no similar enzymatic system has been demonstrated for adrenocorticosteroids which exert feedback control on the hypothalamus. 11β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-OHSD) rapidly metabolizes physiological glucocorticoids (corticosterone, cortisol) to inactive products, thereby regulating glucocorticoid access to peripheral mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors in a site-specific manner. Using in-situ hybridization, we found expression of 11β-OHSD mRNA in neurones of the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) where corticotrophinreleasing factor-41 (CRF-41) is synthesized and from where it is released into hypophysial portal blood. Administration of glycyrrhetinic acid (GE), a potent 11β-OHSD inhibitor, decreased CRF-41 release into hypophysial portal blood in the presence of unchanged circulating glucocorticoid levels, suggesting that 11β-OHSD regulates the effective corticosterone feedback signal to CRF-41 neurones. These effects of GE were not observed in adrenalectomized animals, demonstrating dependence on adrenal products. In contrast, GE led to two- to threefold increases in arginine vasopressin and oxytocin release into portal blood, effects also dependent upon intact adrenal glands. These results suggest that 11β-OHSD in the PVN, and possibly other sites, may represent a novel and important control point of corticosteroid feedback on CRF-41 release in vivo.

Journal of Endocrinology (1993) 136, 471–477

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David O'Regan, Christopher J Kenyon, Jonathan R Seckl, and Megan C Holmes

Low birth weight in humans is predictive of hypertension in adult life. Although the mechanisms underlying this link remain unknown, fetal overexposure to glucocorticoids has been implicated. We previously showed that prenatal dexamethasone (DEX) exposure in the rat lowers birth weight and programmes adult hypertension. The current study aimed to further investigate the nature of this hypertension and to elucidate its origins. Unlike previous studies, we assessed offspring blood pressure (BP) with radiotelemetry, which is unaffected by stress artefacts of measurement. We show that prenatal DEX during the last week of pregnancy results in offspring of low birth weight (14% reduction) that have lower basal BP in adulthood (∼4–8 mmHg lower); with the commonly expected hypertensive phenotype only being noted when these offspring are subjected to even mild disturbance or a more severe stressor (up to 30 mmHg higher than controls). Moreover, DEX-treated offspring sustain their stress-induced hypertension for longer. Promotion of systemic catecholamine release (amphetamine) induced a significantly greater rise of BP in the DEX animals (77% increase) over that observed in the vehicle controls. Additionally, we demonstrate that the isolated mesenteric vasculature of DEX-treated offspring display greater sensitivity to noradrenaline and other vasoconstrictors. We therefore conclude that altered sympathetic responses mediate the stress-induced hypertension associated with prenatal DEX programming.

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S. C. Low, S. N. Assaad, V. Rajan, K. E. Chapman, C. R. W. Edwards, and J. R. Seckl


11β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-OHSD) catalyses the reversible conversion of corticosterone to inactive 11-dehydrocorticosterone, thus regulating glucocorticoid access to mineralocorticoid and perhaps glucocorticoid receptors in vivo. 11β-OHSD has been purified from rat liver and an encoding cDNA isolated from a liver library. However, several lines of indirect evidence suggest the existence of at least two isoforms of 11β-OHSD, one found predominantly in glucocorticoid receptor-rich tissues and the other restricted to aldosterone-selective mineralocorticoid target tissues and placenta. Here we have examined the effects of chronic (10 day) manipulations of sex-steroid levels on 11β-OHSD enzyme activity and mRNA expression in liver, kidney and hippocampus and present further evidence for the existence of a second 11β-OHSD isoform in kidney.

Gonadectomized male and female rats were given testosterone, oestradiol or blank silicone elastomer capsules, controls were sham-operated. In male liver, gonadectomy+ oestradiol treatment led to a dramatic decrease in both 11β-OHSD activity (69 ± 8% decrease) and mRNA expression (97 ± 1% decrease). Gonadectomy and testosterone replacement had no effect on male liver 11β-OHSD. However, in female liver, where 11β-OHSD activity is approximately 50% of that in male liver, gonadectomy resulted in a marked increase in 11β-OHSD activity (120 ± 37% rise), which was reversed by oestradiol replacement but not testosterone treatment.

In male kidney, gonadectomy+oestradiol treatment resulted in a marked increase in 11β-OHSD activity (103 ± 4% rise). By contrast, 11β-OHSD mRNA expression was almost completely repressed (99 ± 0·1% decrease) by oestradiol treatment. This effect of oestradiol was reflected in a loss of 11β-OHSD mRNA in all regions of the kidney showing high expression by in-situ hybridization. In female kidney, oestradiol replacement also led to an increase in 11β-OHSD activity (70 ± 15% rise) while mRNA expression fell by 95 ± 3%. None of the treatments had any effect on enzyme activity or mRNA expression in the hippocampus, although transcription starts from the same promoter as liver.

We conclude that (i) sex steroids regulate 11β-OHSD enzyme activity and mRNA expression in a tissue-specific manner and (ii) the concurrence of increased enzyme activity with near absent 11β-OHSD mRNA expression in the kidney following oestradiol treatment suggests that an additional gene product is responsible, at least in part, for the high renal activity observed.

Journal of Endocrinology (1993) 139, 27–35

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S C Low, K E Chapman, C R W Edwards, T Wells, I C A F Robinson, and J R Seckl


11 β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD) catalyses the reversible metabolism of corticosterone to inert 11-dehydrocorticosterone. At least two isoforms exist. 11β-HSD-1, the first to be characterised and the only isoform for which a cDNA has been isolated, is highly expressed in liver, kidney and hippocampus. The activity of 11β-HSD in rat liver is higher in males, due to oestrogen repression of 11β-HSD-1 gene transcription in females. Sexual dimorphism in rodent liver proteins is frequently mediated indirectly via sex-specific patterns of GH release (continuous in females, pulsatile in males). We have now investigated whether this applies to 11β-HSD, using dwarf rats (congenitally deficient in GH) and hypophysectomised animals.

11β-HSD activity and 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression in liver was significantly lower in control female than male rats (50% and 72% of male levels respectively). These sex differences in the liver were attenuated in dwarf rats, with both males and females showing similar levels of 11 β-HSD activity to control males. Administration of continuous (female pattern) GH to dwarf male rats decreased hepatic 11β-HSD activity (30% fall) and mRNA expression (77% fall), whereas the same total daily dose of GH given in the male (pulsatile) pattern had no effect on hepatic 11 β-HSD in female dwarf rats. Continuous GH also attenuated hepatic 11 β-HSD activity (25% fall) and 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression (82% fall) in hypophysectomised animals. However, oestradiol itself suppressed hepatic 11β-HSD activity (25% fall) and 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression (60% fall) in hypophysectomised rats.

Renal 11 β-HSD activity showed no sexual dimorphism in control or dwarf rats, although overall activity was lower in dwarf animals. By contrast, 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression was higher in male than female kidney in both control and dwarf strains. Neither GH pattern had any effect on 11β-HSD activity or 11β-HSD-1 mRNA levels in the kidney of dwarf rats, although continuous GH attenuated 11β-HSD activity (28% fall) and 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression in kidney (47% decrease) in hypophysectomised animals. Oestradiol attenuated renal 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression (74% fall) in hypophysectomised rats, but increased enzyme activity (62% rise) in the kidney. None of the manipulations had any effect on hippocampal 11 β-HSD activity or gene expression.

These data demonstrate the following. (i) Sexual dimorphism of hepatic 11β-HSD is mediated, in part, via sex-specific patterns of GH secretion acting on 11β-HSD-1 gene expression. (ii) There is an additional direct repressive effect of oestrogen on hepatic 11β-HSD-1. (iii) Other tissue-specific factors are involved in regulating 11β-HSD-1, as neither peripheral GH nor oestrogen have effects upon hippocampal 11β-HSD-1. (iv) The regulation of 11β-HSD-1 mRNA expression in the kidney broadly parallels the liver. The lack of correlation between changes in expression of the 11β-HSD-1 gene and renal 11β-HSD activity reflects the presence of an additional gene product(s) in the kidney, the expression of which is largely independent of GH.

Journal of Endocrinology (1994) 143, 541–548

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Paula J Brunton, Katie M Sullivan, David Kerrigan, John A Russell, Jonathan R Seckl, and Amanda J Drake

Glucocorticoid overexposure during pregnancy programmes offspring physiology and predisposes to later disease. However, any impact of ethologically relevant maternal stress is less clear, yet of physiological importance. Here, we investigated in rats the short- and long-term effects in adult offspring of repeated social stress (exposure to an aggressive lactating female) during late pregnancy on glucose regulation following stress, glucose–insulin homoeostasis and peripheral expression of genes important in regulating glucose and lipid metabolism and glucocorticoid action. Prenatal stress (PNS) was associated with reduced birth weight in female, but not male, offspring. The increase in blood glucose with restraint was exaggerated in adult PNS males compared with controls, but not in females. Oral glucose tolerance testing showed no effects on plasma glucose or insulin concentrations in either sex at 3 months; however, at 6 months, PNS females were hyperinsulinaemic following an oral glucose load. In PNS males, plasma triglyceride concentrations were increased, with reduced hepatic mRNA expression of 5α-reductase and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α (Ppar α (Ppara)) and a strong trend towards reduced peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1α (Pgc1 α (Ppargc1a)) and Ppar γ (Pparg) expression, whereas only Pgc1 α mRNA was affected in PNS females. Conversely, in subcutaneous fat, PNS reduced mRNA expression of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11 β hsd1), phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (Pepck (Pck1)), adipose triglyceride lipase (Atgl) and diglyceride acyltransferase 2 (Dgat2) in females, but only Pepck mRNA expression was reduced in PNS males. Thus, prenatal social stress differentially programmes glucose homoeostasis and peripheral metabolism in male and female offspring. These long-term alterations in physiology may increase susceptibility to metabolic disease.