The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis diurnal cycle of activity is manifest in circadian rhythms of ACTH and corticosterone secretion, which in the rat peak around the onset of the dark period. This cycle is thought to be driven by daily fluctuations in activity of CRH neurons within the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), controlled by suprachiasmatic nucleus inputs. In this study we examined whether the circadian drive that regulates ACTH and corticosterone basal secretion in the rat is reflected in PVN immediate early gene expression and, if so, whether different genes respond uniformly or uniquely to circadian stimulatory input. In addition, we examined how circadian drive and acute stress, two categories of stimuli that induce HPA axis activation, comparatively affect gene expression within different components of the HPA axis (c-fos mRNA, CRH heteronuclear RNA, and zif268 mRNA in PVN; c-fos mRNA, proopiomelanocortin heteronuclear RNA, and zinc finger 268 mRNA in anterior pituitary; c-fos mRNA and nerve growth factor I-B mRNA in adrenal cortex). Finally, we examined whether circadian differences in gene expression depend on endogenous glucocorticoids and, if so, whether the dependence is on an acute or permissive influence of the hormone. We found that a circadian drive that regulates HPA axis basal hormone secretion is also manifest on basal c-fos gene expression in the PVN. Moreover, we show that different immediate early genes within the HPA axis anatomical components display different diurnal patterns of gene expression. These differential patterns result, in part, from gene-specific responses to circadian signals and acute and/or permissive glucocorticoid actions.
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