Leydig cells atrophy, losing cytoplasmic volume and the capacity for testosterone secretion, within 1-2 weeks of LH deprivation. We investigated the effects of long term (0-16 weeks) LH deprivation on the volume of an average Leydig cell, the volume of Leydig cells per testis, the number of Leydig cells per testis, and testosterone secretion by in vitro perfused testes. Endogenous LH was suppressed in adult rats by testosterone/ estradiol-filled (TE) Silastic implants. The presence of Leydig cells in testes was verified by 1) morphological examination using light and electron microscopy, 2) histochemical localization of 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase activity (3βHSD), and 3) conversion of pregnenolone to progesterone by in vitro perfused testes. Marked quantitative differences existed in Leydig cell morphology among control and treated rats. The volume of an average Leydig cell and the total volume of Leydig cells per testis decreased (P < 0.01) rapidly and progressively after TE implantation. At 16 weeks, the average Leydig cell lost 90% of its cytoplasmic volume and 65% of its nuclear volume. Analysis of variance failed to detect a significant decline in Leydig cell number per testis, despite a 16% reduction from the value in control rats (22.2 ± 1.5 × 106) in rats treated for 16 weeks (18.7 ± 1.5 × 106). After TE implantation, LH-stimulated testosterone secretion by in vitro perfused testes diminished (P < 0.01) rapidly to 5% of the control values at 1 week and less than 0.3% of the control value from 4-16 weeks. In contrast, 25% of 3βHSD activity was retained (P < 0.01 vs. Controls) at 16 weeks, based on the rate of pregnenolone conversion to progesterone. Moreover, testes of treated rats secreted progesterone at a rate twice that of controls, when the steroid secretion rates were expressed per volume of Leydig cell cytoplasm. Loss of the testosterone-secreting capacity of testes after LH withdrawal was associated with a loss in the volume, but not a significant loss in the number, of Leydig cells. Thus, LH was required to maintain the differentiated structure and function of Leydig cells, but was not required to maintain the overwhelming majority of Leydig cells in the adult rat testis through 16 weeks. Moreover, at least one steroidogenic enzyme, 3HSD, was retained by Leydig cells after long term LH deprivation.
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