Prenatal exposure to moderate levels of ethanol alters social behavior in adult rats: Relationship to structural plasticity and immediate early gene expression in frontal cortex

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The goals of the present study were to characterize the effects of prenatal exposure to moderate levels of ethanol on adult social behavior, and to evaluate fetal-ethanol-related effects on dendritic morphology, structural plasticity and activity-related immediate early gene (IEG) expression in the agranular insular (AID) and prelimbic (Cg3) regions of frontal cortex. Baseline fetal-ethanol-related alterations in social behavior were limited to reductions in social investigation in males. Repeated experience with novel cage-mates resulted in comparable increases in wrestling and social investigation among saccharin- and ethanol-exposed females, whereas social behavioral effects among males were more evident in ethanol-exposed animals. Male ethanol-exposed rats also displayed profound increases in wrestling when social interaction was motivated by 24 h of isolation. Baseline decreases in dendritic length and spine density in AID were observed in ethanol-exposed rats that were always housed with the same cage-mate. Modest experience-related decreases in dendritic length and spine density in AID were observed in saccharin-exposed rats housed with various cage-mates. In contrast, fetal-ethanol-exposed rats displayed experience-related increases in dendritic length in AID, and no experience-related changes in spine density. The only effect observed in Cg3 was a baseline increase in basilar dendritic length among male ethanol-exposed rats. Robust increases in activity-related IEG expression in AID (c-fos and Arc) and Cg3 (c-fos) were observed following social interaction in saccharin-exposed rats, however, activity-related increases in IEG expression were not observed in fetal-ethanol-exposed rats in either region. The results indicate that deficits in social behavior are among the long-lasting behavioral consequences of moderate ethanol exposure during brain development, and implicate AID, and to a lesser degree Cg3, in fetal-ethanol-related social behavior abnormalities.

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