Effects of pre-natal alcohol exposure on hippocampal synaptic plasticity: Sex, age and methodological considerations

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The consumption of alcohol during gestation is detrimental to the developing central nervous system (CNS). The severity of structural and functional brain alterations associated with alcohol intake depends on many factors including the timing and duration of alcohol consumption. The hippocampal formation, a brain region implicated in learning and memory, is highly susceptible to the effects of developmental alcohol exposure. Some of the observed effects of alcohol on learning and memory may be due to changes at the synaptic level, as this teratogen has been repeatedly shown to interfere with hippocampal synaptic plasticity. At the molecular level alcohol interferes with receptor proteins and can disrupt hormones that are important for neuronal signaling and synaptic plasticity. In this review we examine the consequences of prenatal and early postnatal alcohol exposure on hippocampal synaptic plasticity and highlight the numerous factors that can modulate the effects of alcohol. We also discuss some potential mechanisms responsible for these changes as well as emerging therapeutic avenues that are beginning to be explored.HighlightsPrenatal ethanol exposure differentially impacts the developing male and female brain.Methodological differences in exposure paradigms make some comparisons between studies difficult to make.Measures of synaptic plasticity do not show significant differences between exposure models, however sex differences are readily apparent when examined.

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