Ghrelin is a 28-amino-acid gastric peptide that potently stimulates growth hormone (GH) secretion in vivo and in vitro. Ghrelin-expressing cells have been found in the oxyntic region of the stomach and in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. The aim of this work was to investigate the regional distribution and developmental changes in ghrelin mRNA levels in the pituitary, hypothalamus and gastrointestinal (GI) tract of the rat using a semiquantitative RT-PCR assay. We also describe the effects of ghrelin immunoneutralization in late gestation and those resulting from induction of an isolated GH deficiency in adult rats. Ghrelin mRNA was already expressed in the fetus by embryonic day 12 (E12), by E17 most of ghrelin mRNA was in the trunk. At E17, in situ hybridization did not reveal a clear expression of ghrelin mRNA in fetal stomach but showed high ghrelin mRNA levels in the placenta. In the pituitary gland, levels of ghrelin mRNA were high after birth but declined significantly with puberty, whereas in the hypothalamus they were barely detectable at birth and remained very low at all subsequent time points tested. In the GI tract, ghrelin mRNA levels were high from birth to 270 days of life. Immunoneutralization of ghrelin at E16 had no effect on survival or development. Rats showed normal somatotropic function, ghrelin expression and onset of puberty. In young adult rats, passive immunization against GHRH did not affect ghrelin mRNA levels in the pituitary, hypothalamus and stomach. Only a 72-hour fasting period induced a significant increase in ghrelin mRNA levels in the stomach, but not in the pituitary and hypothalamus. These results strongly indicate that ghrelin is an important GI hormone expressed early in life and primarily sensitive to nutritional status.

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