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Consumption of moderate quantities of ethanol during pregnancy produces deficits in long-term potentiation in the hippocampal formation of adult offspring. Protein kinase C (PKC)-mediated phosphorylation of the presynaptic protein GAP-43 is critical for the induction of long-term potentiation. We tested the hypothesis that this system is affected in fetal alcohol-exposed (FAE) rats by measuring GAP-43 phosphorylation and PKC activity in the hippocampus of adult offspring of rat dams that had consumed one of three diets throughout gestation: (a) a 5% ethanol liquid diet, which produced a maternal blood ethanol concentration of 83 mg/dl (FAE); (b) an isocalorically equivalent 0% ethanol diet (pair-fed); or (c) lab chow ad libitum. Western blot analysis using specific antibodies to PKC-phosphorylated GAP-43 revealed that FAE rats had an ∼50% reduction in the proportion of phosphorylated GAP-43. Similarly, we found that PKC-mediated incorporation of 32P into GAP-43 was reduced by 85% in hippocampal slices from FAE rats compared with both control groups. FAE animals also showed a 50% reduction in total hippocampal PKC activity, whereas the levels of six major PKC isozymes did not change in any of the diet groups. These results suggest that GAP-43 phosphorylation deficits in rats prenatally exposed to moderate levels of ethanol are not due to alterations in the expression of either the enzyme or substrate protein, but rather to a defect in kinase activation.