Hypoglycemia reduces sympathoadrenal responses to subsequent hypoglycemic bouts by an unknown mechanism. To assess whether such hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure is due to actual brain damage, male Sprague-Dawley rats underwent 1-h bouts of insulin-induced (5 U/kg i.v.) hypoglycemia (1.6-2.8 mmol/l) 1 or 3 times on alternate days. Rats remained alert and were rescued with intravenous glucose at 60-80 min. Plasma epinephrine and corticosterone responses were significantly reduced during the second and third bouts. Brains from these rats were processed by the terminal transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate-biotin nick end-labeling (TUNEL) procedure as an index of apoptotic cell death at 24, 48, or 96 h after their first bout. At 48 h, but not 24 h, TUNEL+ cells were consistently seen only in the arcuate nucleus (arcuate hypothalamic nucleus [ARC]). Hypoglycemic rats had 188% more apoptotic ARC cells (1 bout 39+/-5; 3 bouts 37+/-4) than euglycemic controls (13+/-3;P = 0.001). In situ hybridization for neuropeptide Y (NPY) and proopiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA was performed in sections of ARC containing maximal numbers of apoptotic cells as well as in other fresh frozen brains. After 1 bout, NPY (0.041+/-0.003) and POMC (0.119+/-0.022) mRNA were decreased, respectively, by 52 and 55% vs. controls (NPY 0.076+/-0.007; POMC 0.222+/-0.020; P = 0.01). NPY (0.029+/-0.002) but not POMC (0.093+/-0.013) fell 29% further after a third bout. NPY (r = -0.721; P = 0.001) and POMC (r = -0.756; P = 0.001) mRNA levels correlated negatively with the number of apoptotic ARC cells in the same sections. Thus, non-coma hypoglycemia produces apparent apoptotic cell death with reduced NPY and POMC expression selectively in the ARC. This may contribute to the reduced counterregulatory response following repeated bouts of hypoglycemia.