Adaptive changes in DHEA and sulfated-DHEA (DHEAS) production from adrenal zona reticularis (ZR) have been observed in normal and pathological conditions. Here we used three different cohorts to assess timing differences in DHEAS blood level changes and characterize the relationship between early blood DHEAS reduction and cell number changes in women ZR.
Materials and methods
DHEAS plasma samples (n = 463) were analyzed in 166 healthy prepubertal girls before pubarche (<9 years) and 324 serum samples from 268 adult females (31.9–83.8 years) without conditions affecting steroidogenesis. Guided by DHEAS blood levels reduction rate, we selected the age range for ZR cell counting using DHEA/DHEAS and phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN), tumor suppressor and cell stress marker, immunostaining, and hematoxylin stained nuclei of 14 post-mortem adrenal glands.
We confirmed that overweight girls exhibited higher and earlier DHEAS levels and no difference was found compared with the average European and South American girls with a similar body mass index (BMI). Adrenopause onset threshold (AOT) defined as DHEAS blood levels <2040 nmol/L was identified in >35% of the females >40 years old and associated with significantly reduced ZR cell number (based on PTEN and hematoxylin signals). ZR cell loss may in part account for lower DHEA/DHEAS expression, but most cells remain alive with lower DHEA/DHEAS biosynthesis.
The timely relation between significant reduction of blood DHEAS levels and decreased ZR cell number at the beginning of the 40s suggests that adrenopause is an additional burden for a significant number of middle-aged women, and may become an emergent problem associated with further sex steroids reduction during the menopausal transition.