Previous studies have shown that the secretion of oxytocin and vasopressin from the posterior pituitary always accompanies systemic hyperosmotic stimuli in rats, and that oxytocin and vasopressin mRNAs consistently increase in response to prolonged hyperosmotic stimuli. Hence, it has been widely interpreted that oxytocin and vasopressin secretion and gene expression are closely coupled. In the present study, we used both vasopressin and oxytocin intron- specific probes to measure vasopressin and oxytocin heteronuclear RNA (hnRNA) levels, respectively, by in situ hybridisation in the rat supraoptic nucleus (SON) in conjunction with radioimmunoassays of vasopressin and oxytocin peptide levels in plasma and in the posterior pituitary in normally hydrated rats and after 1-5 days of salt loading. Increased oxytocin secretion in response to hyperosmotic stimuli exceeded vasopressin secretion at every time point studied. Vasopressin hnRNA in the SON increased to near maximal levels within minutes after the hyperosmotic stimulus, and was maintained throughout all 5 days of salt loading. By contrast, oxytocin hnRNA did not significantly change from control levels until approximately 2 days after hyperosmotic stimulation, and was not maximal until 3 days. In summary, increases in oxytocin gene transcription in response to osmotic stimuli are dramatically delayed compared to increases in vasopressin gene transcription under the same conditions. These data indicate that oxytocin gene transcription is not as closely correlated with pituitary peptide secretion as is vasopressin gene transcription, and suggests that there is a fundamental difference in excitation-secretion-transcription coupling mechanisms that regulate these two closely related genes in the rat magnocellular neurones in the SON.
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