Leydig cells: From stem cells to aging

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Leydig cells are the testosterone-producing cells of the testis. The adult Leydig cell population ultimately develops from undifferentiated mesenchymal-like stem cells present in the interstitial compartment of the neonatal testis. Four distinct stages of adult Leydig cell development have been identified and characterized: stem Leydig cells, progenitor Leydig cells, immature Leydig cells and adult Leydig cells. The stem Leydig cells are undifferentiated cells that are capable of indefinite self-renewal, differentiation, and replenishment of the Leydig cell niche. Progenitor Leydig cells are derived from the stem Leydig cells. These spindle-shaped cells are luteinizing hormone (LH) receptor positive, have high mitotic activity, and produce little testosterone but rather testosterone metabolites. The progenitor Leydig cells give rise to immature Leydig cells which are round, contain large amounts of smooth endoplasmic reticulum, and produce some testosterone but also very high levels of testosterone metabolites. A single division of these cells produces adult Leydig cells, which are terminally differentiated cells that produce high levels of testosterone. As men age, serum testosterone levels decline, and this is associated with alterations in body composition, energy level, muscle strength, physical, sexual and cognitive functions, and mood. In the Brown Norway rat, used extensively as a model for male reproductive aging, age-related reductions in serum testosterone result from significant decline in the ability of aged Leydig cells to produce testosterone in response to LH stimulation. This review describes Leydig cell development and aging. Additionally, the molecular mechanisms by which testosterone synthesis declines with aging are discussed.