In previous studies, we have shown that the baroreflex control of heart rate is significantly attenuated in females compared with age-matched males. This study investigated the role of estrogen in the modulation of baroreflex function in conscious unrestrained rats. Baroreflex-mediated decreases in heart rate in response to increments in blood pressure evoked by phenylephrine were evaluated in conscious freely moving male and female Sprague-Dawley rats as well as in ovariectomized rats. The effect of a 2-day 17 beta-estradiol (50 micrograms.kg-1.day-1, s.c.) or vehicle treatment on baroreflex sensitivity was investigated in ovariectomized rats. Intravenous bolus doses of phenylephrine (1-16 micrograms/kg) elicited dose-dependent pressor and bradycardic responses in all groups of rats. Regression analysis of the baroreflex curves relating increments in blood pressure to the associated heart rate responses revealed a significantly (p < 0.05) smaller baroreflex sensitivity in female compared with male rats (-1.22 +/- 0.07 and -1.85 +/- 0.15 beats.min-1.mmHg-1, respectively), suggesting an attenuated baroreflex function in females. In age-matched ovariectomized rats, baroreflex sensitivity showed further reduction (-0.93 +/- 0.02 beats.min-1.mmHg-1). Treatment of ovariectomized rats with 17 beta-estradiol significantly (p < 0.05) enhanced the baroreflex sensitivity (-1.41 +/- 0.16 beats.min-1.mmHg-1) to a level that was slightly higher than that of sham-operated female rats. Furthermore, baroreflex sensitivity of ovariectomized estradiol-treated rats was not significantly different from that of age-matched male rats. The vehicle, on the other hand, had no effect on baroreflex sensitivity of ovariectomized rats. These data support our earlier findings that sexual dimorphism exists in baroreflex control of heart rate. More importantly, the present study provides experimental evidence that suggests a facilitatory role for estrogen in the modulation of baroreflex function.
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