Stress in socially subordinate male rats, associated with aggressive attacks by dominant males, was studied in a group-housing context called the visible burrow system (VBS). It has been established that subordinate males have reduced serum testosterone (T) and higher corticosterone (CORT) relative to dominant and singly housed control males. The relationship of the decreased circulating T levels in subordinate males to changes in serum LH concentrations has not been evaluated previously. Since decreases in LH during stress may cause reductions in Leydig cell steroidogenic activity, the present study defined the temporal profiles of serum LH, T, and CORT in dominant and subordinate males on Days 4, 7, and 14 of a 14-day housing period in the VBS. The same parameters were followed in serum samples from single-housed control males. Leydig cells express glucocorticoid receptors and may also be targeted for direct inhibition of steroidogenesis by glucocorticoid. We hypothesize that Leydig cells are protected from inhibition by CORT at basal concentrations through oxidative inactivation of glucocorticoid by 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11βHSD). However, Leydig cell steroidogenesis is inhibited when 11βHSD metabolizing capacity is exceeded. Therefore, 11βHSD enzyme activity levels were measured in Leydig cells of VBS-housed males at the same time points. Significant increases in LH and T relative to control were observed in the dominant animals on Day 4, which were associated with the overt establishment of behavioral dominance as evidenced by victorious agonistic encounters. Serum LH and T were lower in subordinate males on Day 7, but T alone was lower on Day 14, suggesting that lowered LH secretion in subordinates may gradually be reversed by declines in androgen-negative feedback. Serum CORT levels were higher in subordinate males compared to control at all three time points. In contrast, oxidative 11βHSD activity in Leydig cells of dominant males was higher relative to control and unchanged in subordinates. These results suggest the following: 1) failure of Leydig cells of subordinate males to compensate for increased glucocorticoid action during stress, by increasing 11βHSD oxidative activity, potentiates stress-mediated reductions in T secretion; and 2) an inhibition of the reproductive axis in subordinate males at the level of the pituitary.
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