The phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase- and neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive nerve terminal profiles and the glucocorticoid receptor-immunoreactive nuclear profiles have been characterized in the parvocellular part of the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus of the adult (3 month) and the old (24 month) male rat. The phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-, neuropeptide Y- and glucocorticoid receptor-immunoreactive structures have been demonstrated by means of the indirect immunoperoxidase procedure and analysed in a quantitative way by means of morphometrical and microdensitometrical approaches using both semiautomatic and automatic image analysis. During aging there is (a) a marked reduction in the number of neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive profiles, a moderate reduction of phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive profiles and a small reduction in the number of glucocorticoid receptor-immunoreactive profiles without a significant change in the evenness of distribution of such profiles as evaluated by means of Gini's index; (b) a loss of the significant correlation in the distribution of the glucocorticoid receptor- and phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive profiles at the two most caudal levels analysed (A5150 and A5270 μm) while a significant correlation developed between these two distributions at a more rostral level (A5400 μm); (c) a substantial decline in the overlap area of the glucocorticoid receptor- and phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive profiles at four out of five rostrocaudal levels analysed; (d) a marked reduction in the density-intensity of the neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive profiles and a small significant reduction in the density-intensity of the phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive profiles without any associated changes in the intensity of the glucocorticoid receptor-immunoreactive profiles. Furthermore, three-dimensional reconstructions of the overall distribution of the glucocorticoid receptor-, phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase and neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive structures have been made in the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus of the adult male rat. The present results indicate a reduction of neuropeptide Y- and phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive nerve terminal profiles in the parvocellular part of the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus during aging. These results may in part reflect a loss of neuropeptide Y-like peptides in phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase-immunoreactive nerve terminals of the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus, favouring our view that during aging the modulatory peptides may be lost, leading to a loss of plastic responses in the aging brain. Furthermore, the results open up the possibility that the glucocorticoid receptor immunoreactivity in the parvocellular part of the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus is resistant to the aging process. Disturbances in the hypothalmic pituitary adrenal axis in the aged brain may therefore be related instead to reductions of glucocorticoid receptor turnover and not to changes in the steady-state levels of the glucocorticoid receptor.
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