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Neuroscience. 2003;120(1):269-81.

Voluntary freewheel running selectively modulates catecholamine content in peripheral tissue and c-Fos expression in the central sympathetic circuit following exposure to uncontrollable stress in rats.

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Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA.


Modulation of sympathetic drive to the spleen is one potential mechanism whereby physical activity prevents stress-induced splenic immune suppression in rats. The current study tested the hypothesis that voluntary freewheel running reduces peripheral sympathetic drive by modulating stress-induced activity of brain regions synaptically linked to sympathetically innervated peripheral organs, including the adrenals and spleen. To this end, adrenal and splenic catecholamine content and activity of the central sympathetic circuit indexed by c-Fos protein induction, elicited by acute exposure to inescapable tail shock, were measured. Stressor exposure depleted adrenal and splenic norepinephrine content and elicited a robust increase in c-Fos in the brains of sedentary rats. Physical activity status had no effect on adrenal norepinephrine content. Indicative of attenuated sympathetic drive to the spleen, however, 6 weeks of voluntary freewheel running diminished stress-induced splenic norepinephrine depletion, and significantly attenuated stress-induced c-Fos in specific brain regions responsible for sympathetic regulation, including tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons of the locus coeruleus, A5 cell group and rostral ventrolateral medulla. Results suggest that voluntary activity attenuates sympathetic drive to the spleen during stressor exposure by selectively modulating stress-induced activity of the central sympathetic circuit. The attenuation of sympathetic responses observed in this study may be one important mechanism for the protective effect of physical activity against stress-related illness and immunosuppression.

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