Air pollution is associated with adverse impacts on the brain, including cognitive decline and increased incidence of dementia, depression and anxiety; however, underlying mechanisms remain unclear. We have shown that both ozone and particulate matter activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, increasing plasma glucocorticoids and altering mRNA profiles in multiple tissues including the brain. HPA axis dysregulation has been associated with central nervous system impacts, including key effects in the hippocampus; accordingly, we hypothesized that pollutant-dependent increases in glucocorticoid levels impact biological pathways relevant to brain health. Fischer-344 rats were treated with metyrapone (0 or 50 mg/kg), a glucocorticoid synthesis inhibitor, and exposed to ozone (0 or 0.8 ppm) for 4 h (n = 5/group) to investigate the role of glucocorticoids in ozone-dependent effects on tryptophan metabolism and expression of serotonin receptors and neurotrophic factors. Ozone increased plasma levels of the tryptophan metabolite kynurenine (~2-fold) and decreased tryptophan levels (~1.2 fold). Hippocampal expression of serotonin receptors exhibited differential regulation following exposure, and expression of key neurotrophic factors (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, vascular endothelial growth factor A, insulin-like growth factor-1, tyrosine kinase receptor B, b-cell lymphoma 2) was decreased. Some, but not all effects were abrogated by metyrapone treatment, suggesting both glucocorticoid-dependent and -independent regulation. Exposure to exogenous corticosterone (10 mg/kg) followed by clean air reproduced the ozone effects that were blocked with metyrapone, confirming the specificity of effects to glucocorticoids. These results indicate that ozone can modify pathways relevant to brain health and establish a role for the HPA axis in mediating these effects.
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