The exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation during radiotherapy results in severe morphological and functional alterations of the salivary glands, such as xerostomia. In the present study we investigated the chronic effect of a single radiation dose of 15 Gray (Gy) limited to head and neck on rat salivary gland function (salivary secretion and gland mass) and histology. Results indicate that norepinephrine (NE)-induced salivary secretion was reduced significantly at 30, 90, 180 and 365 days after the administration of a single dose of 15 Gy of ionizing radiation compared to non-irradiated animals. The maximal secretory response was reduced by 33% at 30 and 90 days post irradiation. Interestingly, a new fall in the salivary response to NE was observed at 180 days and was maintained at 365 days post irradiation, showing a 75% reduction in the maximal response. The functional fall of the salivary secretion observed at 180 days post irradiation was not only associated with a reduction of gland mass but also to an alteration of the epithelial architecture exhibiting a changed proportion of ducts and acini, loss of eosinophilic secretor granular material, and glandular vacuolization and fibrosis. On the basis of the presented results, we conclude that ionizing radiation produces irreversible and progressive alterations of submandibular gland (SMG) function and morphology that leads to a severe salivary hypo-function.

Keywords: Radiotherapy, xerostomia, submandibular gland, salivary secretion.
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