Currently, histological classifications of ovarian follicular atresia are almost exclusively based on the morphology of the membrana granulosa without reference to the theca interna. Atresia in the bovine small antral ovarian follicle has been redefined into antral or basal atresia where cell death commences initially within antral or basal regions of the membrana granulosa, respectively. To examine cell death in the theca interna in the two types of atretic follicles, bovine ovaries were collected and processed for immunohistochemistry and light microscopy. Follicles were classified as healthy, antral atretic, or basal atretic. Follicle diameter was recorded and sections stained with lectin from Bandeiraea simplicifolia to identify endothelial cells or with an antibody to cytochrome P450 cholesterol side-chain cleavage to identify steroidogenic cells and combined with TUNEL labeling to identify dead cells. The numerical density of steroidogenic cells within the theca interna was significantly reduced (P < 0.001) in basal atretic follicles in comparison with other follicles. Cell death was greater in both endothelial cells (P < 0.05) and steroidogenic cells (P < 0.01) of the theca interna of basal atretic follicles compared with healthy and antral atretic follicles. Thus, we conclude that the theca interna is susceptible to cell death early in atresia, particularly in basal atretic follicles.
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