Numerous clinical and experimental studies have linked stress to changes in risk factors associated with the development of physiological syndromes, including metabolic disorders. How different mediators of the stress response, such as corticosterone (CORT), influence these changes in risk remains unclear. Although CORT has beneficial short-term effects, long-term CORT exposure can result in damage to the physiological systems it protects acutely. Disruption of this important physiologic signal is observed in numerous disparate disorders, ranging from depression to Cushing's syndrome. Thus, understanding the effects of chronic high CORT on metabolism and physiology is of key importance. We explored the effects of 4-wk exposure to CORT dissolved in the drinking water on the physiology and behavior of male mice. We used this approach as a noninvasive way of altering plasma CORT levels while retaining some integrity in the diurnal rhythm present in normal animals. This approach has advantages over methods involving constant CORT pellets, CORT injections, or adrenalectomy. We found that high doses of CORT (100 μg/ml) result in rapid and dramatic increases in weight gain, increased adiposity, elevated plasma leptin, insulin and triglyceride levels, hyperphagia, and decreased home-cage locomotion. A lower dose of CORT (25 μg/ml) resulted in an intermediate phenotype in some of these measures but had no effect on others. We propose that the physiological changes observed in the high-CORT animals approximate changes observed in individuals suffering from the metabolic syndrome, and that they potentially serve as a model for hypercortisolemia and stress-related obesity.
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