Aging in women is associated with dramatic changes in neuronal morphology and neuropeptide gene expression in the medial basal hypothalamus. There is hypertrophy of neurons expressing substance P and neurokinin B gene transcripts in the infundibular (arcuate) nucleus, accompanied by increased tachykinin gene expression. In addition, gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) gene expression is increased in a separate subpopulation of neurons within the medial basal hypothalamus. In contrast, the number of neurons expressing proopiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA in the infundibular nucleus of older women is decreased. To determine whether neuronal degeneration contributes to these phenomena, unbiased stereologic methods were used to compare the total number of infundibular neurons between groups of young (premenopausal) and older (postmenopausal) women. There was no significant difference in the total number of infundibular neurons between young (520,000 +/- 42,000 neurons, mean +/- SEM) and older women (505,000 +/- 51,000 neurons, mean +/- SEM). The mean volume of neuronal somata, however, was increased by 40% in the older women (young, 1,860 +/- 180 microm(3) vs. older, 2,610 +/- 230 microm(3), mean +/- SEM, P < 0.05). These data demonstrate that neuronal hypertrophy in older women is not accompanied by degeneration of the infundibular nucleus. We conclude that the loss of menstrual cyclicity in middle-aged women cannot be explained by loss of neurons within the hypothalamic control center for reproduction.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.