The biosynthesis and secretion of somatostatin (SRIH) within the hypothalamic periventricular-median eminence (PeN-ME) pathway follows a sexually differentiated developmental pattern beginning in the early neonatal period. It is generally accepted that testosterone plays a role in these processes, but the mechanisms underlying the age and sex differences are poorly understood. The present study sought to investigate the hypothesis that γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) may play a role in determining sex differences in SRIH neuronal activity. Using an in vitro hypothalamic preparation where more than 97% of the immunoreactive SRIH is contained within the PeN-ME pathway, peptide release in response to the GABAA receptor antagonist, bicuculline, was followed through development. In the male a stimulatory response, indicative of an inhibitory GABAergic tone on SRIH secretion, was observed as early as postnatal day (P) 5. This persisted throughout juvenile development (P10, P17) and was present also in the adult male (P75), but in the peripubertal period the response to bicuculline was first lost (P25) and then reversed to an inhibition (P40), suggesting a transient switch to an apparent stimulatory GABAergic tone on SRIH release. By contrast, in the female, no bicuculline responsiveness was seen until P25 when it caused a decrease in SRIH release which persisted into adulthood. Using in situ hybridization studies we found no evidence to support the view that these age- and sex-dependent differences were due to changes in the expression of GABAA receptor α-subunits (α1 and α2) which are colocalised in the PeN SRIH neurons. Following adult gonadectomy, the bicuculline response was abolished in the male, whereas, in the female it was reversed and identical in magnitude to the response in the intact male. These results demonstrate marked sex differences in GABAA-receptor-mediated influences on SRIH release which develop soon after birth and, in the adult, depend on gonadal factors. In the male these factors activate a primarily inhibitory influence, whereas in the female they facilitate an apparently stimulatory tone of GABA on SRIH secretion via the GABAA receptor. Our findings thus support the view that GABAergic transmission may play a key role in generating sex differences in the mode of SRIH secretion from the hypothalamus which has been shown to be a major factor in determining the sexually dimorphic patterns of growth hormone secretion.

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