In exercising skeletal muscle, vasoconstrictor responses to α-adrenoceptor activation are attenuated in part by nitric oxide (NO) produced by the neuronal isoform of NO synthase (nNOS), which is expressed constitutively in skeletal muscle cells. In skeletal muscle of pregnant animals, nNOS mRNA is upregulated, suggesting that muscle nNOS expression is modulated by the steroid hormone oestrogen. Whether oestrogen-induced changes in nNOS expression have measurable effects on vasoregulation in skeletal muscle is unknown. In this study, we hypothesized that oestrogen deficiency would reduce muscle nNOS expression, resulting in impaired modulation of sympathetic vasoconstriction in exercising skeletal muscle. Compared to gonadally intact rats, we found that ovariectomized (OVX) rats were characterized by greater sympathetic vasoconstriction in contracting hindlimb and reduced nNOS, but not eNOS, in skeletal muscle. In addition, NOS inhibition resulted in a greater enhancement of sympathetic vasoconstriction in contracting hindlimbs of intact compared to OVX rats. These effects of oestrogen deficiency were prevented by chronic treatment of OVX rats with 17β-oestradiol, but not with chronic progesterone or acute oestradiol. Further analysis revealed that skeletal muscle nNOS correlated directly with plasma 17β-oestradiol and inversely with the magnitude of sympathetic vasoconstrictor responses in contracting hindlimbs. These data indicate that NO-dependent attenuation of sympathetic vasoconstriction in contracting skeletal muscle is impaired in oestrogen-deficient female rats, and suggest that this impairment may be mediated by reduced skeletal muscle nNOS expression.
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