Erectile dysfunction in aging: upregulation of endothelial nitric oxide synthase

Urology. 1998 Mar;51(3):516-22. doi: 10.1016/s0090-4295(97)00715-2.


Objectives: To evaluate whether alterations in nitric oxide (NO) synthesis or activity contribute to age-related erectile dysfunction and to elucidate the mechanisms causing these alterations using the rabbit as our model of aging.

Methods: We compared the ability of the rabbit cavernosal smooth muscle to relax in the organ bath in response to acetylcholine (Ach, endothelium-dependent vasodilator), sodium nitroprusside (SNP, an NO donor), and A23187 (a calcium ionophore) in young (6 month old) and aged (2.5 to 3.5 year old) rabbits. In addition, the immunohistochemical expression of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS) in both young and aged rabbit cavernosal tissue was examined. Endothelial integrity was examined immunohistochemically with JC70.

Results: Ach-mediated relaxation of penile corporal tissue was significantly attenuated from a maximum of 68.39 +/- 6.27 (0.1 mM Ach, n = 4) in young rabbits to 39.02 +/- 4.88 (0.1 mM Ach, n = 6) in aged rabbits (P < 0.04). No statistically significant difference (P > 0.05) was noted between cavernosal relaxation to sodium nitroprusside between young rabbits (97.8%, 0.1 mM SNP, n = 5) and aged rabbits (76.1%, 0.1 mM SNP, n = 5). This suggested that the defect in the Ach-NO pathway was at the level of NO synthesis, not activity. Immunohistochemical staining for eNOS demonstrated upregulation in both the vascular endothelium and corporal smooth muscle of aged rabbit tissue compared with young rabbit cavernosal tissue (n = 5). Anatomic endothelial integrity was demonstrated in the young and aged rabbits by the presence of JC70. This suggested that the defect in the Ach-NO synthetic pathway was not at the level of eNOS and was not due to anatomic endothelial cell disruption. Finally, Ach-mediated cavernosal smooth muscle relaxation in the young rabbit was not significantly augmented (P > 0.05) in the presence of the calcium ionophore A23187 (10 microM). A23187, however, significantly augmented (P < 0.04) Ach-mediated relaxation in the aged rabbit from a maximum of 33.93 +/- 6.58 to 41.55 +/- 6.58 (10 microM Ach, n = 5). This suggested that a potential defect in the Ach-NO synthetic pathway was at the level of intracellular calcium flux and possibly at the level of the calcium-eNOS interaction.

Conclusions: Endothelium-dependent relaxation is attenuated in the aging rabbit; eNOS is upregulated in the aging rabbit; and no difference is noted in response to direct NO donation between the young and aged rabbit. The endothelium is anatomically intact in both the young and aging rabbit. The calcium ionophore A23187 augmented the attenuated vasorelaxation in the aging rabbit cavernosum (although not to the levels seen in the young rabbit cavernosum) and had no effect on the young rabbit cavernosum. These data suggest that erectile dysfunction in the aging rabbit cavernosum appears to be related to endothelial dysfunction and is characterized by eNOS upregulation and aberrant intracellular calcium fluxes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / pharmacology
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Calcimycin / pharmacology
  • Endothelium / enzymology
  • Erectile Dysfunction / enzymology*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Ionophores / pharmacology
  • Male
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase / metabolism*
  • Nitroprusside / pharmacology
  • Penis / drug effects
  • Penis / physiology
  • Rabbits
  • Up-Regulation
  • Vasodilator Agents / pharmacology


  • Ionophores
  • Vasodilator Agents
  • Nitroprusside
  • Calcimycin
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase
  • Acetylcholine