We studied the morphological and quantitative changes in cyclic corpora lutea (CCL) and in CL of pregnancy (CLP) during structural luteolysis. Elimination of CCL takes several cycles, and cell death occurs as successive apoptotic bursts, from 2100 h in proestrus to 1300 h in estrus. Each apoptotic burst determined a 60% decrease in the CL volume and an 80% decrease in the number of steroidogenic cells (SC). All these changes were inhibited by blocking the preovulatory prolactin (PRL) surge with bromocryptine (CB154). Neither apoptotic cells nor changes in the number of SC were found in regressing CLP from Day 21 of pregnancy to Day 2 postpartum, although there was a 50% decrease in the CLP volume and a 30% decrease in the mean cross-sectional area of SC. Treatment with CB154 on the day of parturition did not modify these regressive changes. On Day 5 postpartum, the volume of the CLP and the number of SC were equivalent in lactating rats (showing high PRL concentrations induced by pup suckling) and nonlactating noncycling rats (in which cyclicity and, therefore PRL surges, were blocked by treatment with LHRH antagonist). However, on Day 10 postpartum, the CLP volume and the number of SC were significantly decreased in lactating rats, and apoptotic cells were frequent. In postpartum cycling rats, the CLP did not show apoptotic cells on the day of the second postpartum estrus (on Day 5 postpartum), whereas on the day of the third postpartum estrus (on Day 9 postpartum), apoptotic cells were abundant. These results indicate that PRL does not induce apoptosis in the CLP before Day 5 postpartum and strongly suggest that the proapoptotic effect of PRL is dependent on the degree of differentiation of luteal cells.
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