The rat central nervous system (CNS) has previously been shown to synthesize pregnenolone (PREG) and convert it to progesterone (PROG) and 7 alpha-hydroxy-PREG (7 alpha-OH PREG). Astrocytes, which participate to the regulation of the CNS function, might be involved in the metabolism of neurosteroids. Purified type 1 astrocytes were obtained from fetal rat forebrain with the use of selective culture conditions and were identified by immunostaining with specific antibodies (GFAP+, A2B5-). They were plated at low, intermediate, or high densities (2.5-5 x 10(5), 1-2 x 10(6), or 4-8 x 10(6) cells/dish, respectively) and maintained for 21 d. They were then incubated with 14C-PREG and 14C-DHEA for 24 h and the steroids extracted from cells and media were analyzed. Most radioactive derivatives were released into incubation media. Two metabolic pathways were mainly observed. PREG and DHEA were oxidized to PROG and androstenedione (ADIONE), respectively, [3 beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase, delta 5-->4 3-ketosteroid-isomerase (3 beta-HSD) activity], and converted to 7 alpha-OH PREG and 7 alpha-OH DHEA, respectively (7 alpha-hydroxylase activity). After low density plating, the formation of PROG and ADIONE was approximately 10% of incubated radioactivity, tenfold larger than that of 7 alpha-hydroxylated metabolites. In contrast, after high density plating, low levels of PROG and ADIONE were formed, whereas the conversion to either 7 alpha-OH PREG or 7 alpha-OH DHEA was > or = 50%. The results expressed per cell indicated that the 3 beta-HSD activity was almost completely inhibited at high cell density, in contrast to the 7 alpha-hydroxylation which was maintained or increased. The pattern of steroid metabolism was related to cell density at the time of measurement and not to an early commitment of cells: when primary cultures were plated at high density (8 x 10(6) cells/dish), then subcultured after several dilutions (3-, 9-, or 27-fold), the 3 beta-HSD activity was recovered only at low density. Furthermore, when 5 x 10(5) cells were centrifuged and the resulting clusters were plated, 3 beta-HSD activity was decreased, whereas steroid 7 alpha-hydroxylation was enhanced. This implies that cell density per se, but neither cell number nor a diffusible factor(s) is involved in the regulation of steroid metabolism. We conclude that astrocytes in culture metabolize PREG and DHEA, and that the metabolic conversions and, therefore, the related enzymatic activities depend on cell-to-cell contacts.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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