In utero alcohol exposure can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), characterized by structural brain abnormalities and long-lasting behavioral and cognitive dysfunction.
Neuronal plasticity is affected by in utero alcohol exposure and can be modulated by extracellular proteolysis. Plasmin is a major extracellular serine-protease whose activation is tightly regulated by the plasminogen activator (PA) system. In the present study we explored the effect of ethanol on the expression of the main components of the brain PA system in sex-specific cortical astrocyte primary cultures in vitro and in the cortex and hippocampus of post-natal day (PD) 9 male and female rats.
We find that ethanol alters the PA system in astrocytes and in the developing brain. In particular, the expression of tissue-type PA (tPA), encoded by the gene Plat, is consistently upregulated by ethanol in astrocytes in vitro and in the cortex and hippocampus in vivo. Astrocytes exhibit endogenous plasmin activity that is increased by ethanol and recombinant tPA and inhibited by tPA silencing. We also find that tPA is expressed by astrocytes of the developing cortex and hippocampus in vivo. All components of the PA system investigated, with the exception of Neuroserpin/Serpini1, are expressed at higher levels in astrocyte cultures than in the developing brain, suggesting that astrocytes are major producers of these proteins in the brain. In conclusion, astrocyte PA system may play a major role in the modulation of neuronal plasticity; ethanol-induced upregulation of tPA levels and plasmin activity may be responsible for altered neuronal plasticity in FASD.