Ethanol and the Developing Brain: Inhibition of Neuronal Activity and Neuroapoptosis

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Abstract

Ethanol induces massive neuroapoptosis in the developing brain. One of the main hypotheses that has been put forward to explain the deleterious actions of ethanol in the immature brain involves an inhibition of neuronal activity. Here, we review recent evidence for this hypothesis obtained in the somatosensory cortex and hippocampus of neonatal rodents. In both structures, ethanol strongly inhibits brain activity. At the doses inducing massive neuroapoptosis, ethanol completely suppresses the early activity patterns of spindle-bursts and gamma oscillations in the neocortex and the early sharp-waves in the hippocampus. The inhibitory effects of ethanol decrease with age and in adult animals, ethanol only mildly depresses neuronal firing and induces delta-wave activity. Suppression of cortical activity in neonatal animals likely involves inhibition of the myoclonic twitches, an important physiological trigger for the early activity bursts, and inhibition of the thalamocortical and intracortical circuits through a potentiation of GABAergic transmission and an inhibition of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, that is in keeping with the neuroapoptotic effects of other agents acting on GABA and NMDA receptors. These findings provide support for the hypothesis that the ethanol-induced inhibition of cortical activity is an important pathophysiological mechanism underlying massive neuroapoptosis induced by ethanol in the developing brain.

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