Research articles

Reduced quality and accelerated follicle loss with female reproductive aging – does decline in theca dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) underlie the problem?

Infertility, spontaneous abortion and conception of trisomic offspring increase exponentially with age in mammals but in women there is an apparent acceleration in the rate from about age 37. The problems mostly commonly occur when the ovarian pool of follicles is depleted to a critical level with age but are also found in low follicular reserve of other etiologies. Since recent clinical studies have indicated that dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation may reverse the problem of oocyte quality, this review of the literature was undertaken in an attempt to find an explanation of why this is effective? In affected ovaries, oxygenation of follicular fluid is low, ultrastructural disturbances especially of mitochondria, occur in granulosa cells and oocytes, and considerable disturbances of meiosis occur. There is, however, no evidence to date that primordial follicles are compromised. In females with normal fertility, pre-antral ovarian theca cells respond to stimulation by inhibin B to provide androgen-based support for the developing follicle. With depletion of follicle numbers, inhibin B is reduced with consequent reduction in theca DHEA. Theca cells are the sole ovarian site of synthesis of DHEA, which is both a precursor of androstenedione and an essential ligand for peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα), the key promoter of genes affecting fatty acid metabolism and fat transport and genes critical to mitochondrial function. As well as inducing a plethora of deleterious changes in follicular cytoplasmic structure and function, the omega 9 palmitate/oleate ratio is increased by lowered activity of PPARα. This provides conditions for increased ceramide synthesis and follicular loss through ceramide-induced apoptosis isaccelerated. In humans critical theca DHEA synthesis occurs at about 70 days prior to ovulation thus effective supplementation needs to be undertaken about four months prior to intended conception; timing which is also suggested by successful interventions to date. In humans and primates that undergo adrenarche, the adrenal zona reticularis (ZR) is the major site of DHEA production, however this is also reduced with age. Concomitant loss in function of the ZR might account for the acceleration in the rate of aging seen in humans in the late thirties’ age group.