Protection from vascular dysfunction in female rats with chronic stress and depressive symptoms.
The increasing prevalence and severity of clinical depression are strongly correlated with vascular disease risk, creating a comorbid condition with poor outcomes but demonstrating a sexual disparity whereby female subjects are at lower risk than male subjects for subsequent cardiovascular events. To determine the potential mechanisms responsible for this protection against stress/depression-induced vasculopathy in female subjects, we exposed male, intact female, and ovariectomized (OVX) female lean Zucker rats to the unpredictable chronic mild stress (UCMS) model for 8 wk and determined depressive symptom severity, vascular reactivity in ex vivo aortic rings and middle cerebral arteries (MCA), and the profile of major metabolites regulating vascular tone. While all groups exhibited severe depressive behaviors from UCMS, severity was significantly greater in female rats than male or OVX female rats. In all groups, endothelium-dependent dilation was depressed in aortic rings and MCAs, although myogenic activation and vascular (MCA) stiffness were not impacted. Higher-resolution results from pharmacological and biochemical assays suggested that vasoactive metabolite profiles were better maintained in female rats with normal gonadal sex steroids than male or OVX female rats, despite increased depressive symptom severity (i.e., higher nitric oxide and prostacyclin and lower H2O2 and thromboxane A2 levels). These results suggest that female rats exhibit more severe depressive behaviors with UCMS but are partially protected from the vasculopathy that afflicts male rats and female rats lacking normal sex hormone profiles. Determining how female sex hormones afford partial vascular protection from chronic stress and depression is a necessary step for addressing the burden of these conditions on cardiovascular health. NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study used a translationally relevant model for chronic stress and elevated depressive symptoms to determine how these factors impact conduit and resistance arteriolar function in otherwise healthy rats. While chronic stress leads to an impaired vascular reactivity associated with elevated oxidant stress, inflammation, and reduced metabolite levels, we demonstrated partial protection from vascular dysfunction in female rats with normal sex hormone profiles compared with male or ovariectomized female rats.