Mechanisms of glucocorticoid-induced Leydig cell apoptosis

Document Type

Article (peer-reviewed)

Publication Date



The high levels of corticosterone (CORT) that are typically achieved during stress induce apoptotic death of Leydig cells. The intracellular mechanisms by which CORT acts on Leydig cells to induce apoptosis are unknown, and the present study tested for mediation by Fas ligand (FasL), a member of the tumor necrosis factor ligand family, in association with caspase activation. In addition, another apoptotic pathway involving in the participation of mitochondria was studied by evaluation of mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨ) loss and generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are early apoptotic events in many cell types. Rat Leydig cells were isolated from adrenalectomized rats on day 90 postpartum at 3, 6, 12, 24 and 48 h after the start of CORT administration (at a dose of 5 mg total/100 g body weight per day intraperitoneally in two daily injections starting 3 days after surgery). Both FasL and Fas receptor protein levels, analyzed by Western blot and fluorescent immunohistochemistry, increased at 6 h after the start of CORT administration, peaking at 24 h and declining thereafter. Leydig cell caspase-3 activity was analyzed in vitro. Low molecular weight DNA fragments that are characteristic of apoptosis were evident in Leydig cells by 12 h of exposure to 100 nM CORT in vitro, and the abundance of the fragments was more pronounced at 24 h. In the presence of a specific caspase inhibitor, Ac-DEVD-CHO, Leydig cell apoptosis was suppressed, corroborating the hypothesis that caspase-3 is involved in CORT-mediated cell death. Western blotting analysis revealed that procaspase-3 was present only at low levels in untreated control Leydig cells, and increased by 6 h of CORT administration. By 12 h, however, procaspase-3 was significantly reduced, and the cleaved, active caspase-3 forms appeared and increased through 24 h. These results indicated that FasL/Fas and caspase were implicated in CORT-mediated Leydig cell apoptosis. Decreased ΔΨ and increased ROS generation were also measurable in Leydig cells for up to 2 days following CORT administration in vitro. These data indicate that activation of the Fas system, cleavage of procaspase-3, loss of ΔΨ and increased ROS generation are all implicated in the process of CORT-induced Leydig cell death.