Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. It can elevate the level of glucocorticoid which is involved in metabolism regulation, stress response, and immune function. However, the specific mechanism has yet to be elucidated. Glucocorticoid is steroid hormone synthesized in adrenal cortex and the key rate-limiting step in its biosynthesis is mediated by steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR). This study was designed to investigate the direct effects and inheritable epigenetic mechanisms of caffeine on cortisol production and StAR expression in human adrenocortical cells. The human adrenocortical cell line NCI-H295A was cultured with 0.4-40μM caffeine. There was a significant increase of the cortisol production in cells. In both acutely and chronically caffeine-treated cell groups, mRNA and protein expressions of StAR were stimulated in a dose-dependent manner. DNA methylation detection via bisulfite-sequencing PCR (BSP) uncovered a single site CpG demethylation at nt -682 within the StAR promoter region. Then we investigated how long the increased StAR expression and the single CpG demethylation could last. The caffeine was withdrawn after 48h of treatment and then the cells were continually subcultured for up to 5 and 10 passages, respectively. The results showed that the StAR expression at post-caffeine passage 10 still increased, as compared with that in the control. The caffeine-induced demethylation at nt -682 in StAR promoter underwent a similar time course as StAR expression does. The present study reveals the direct effect and possible inheritable epigenetic mechanism of caffeine on steroidogenesis in human adrenocortical cells and has implications for our understanding of the consumption of caffeine.
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