Background: The incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is estimated to be as high as 1 in 100 births. Efforts to better understand the basis of prenatal ethanol-induced impairments in brain functioning, and the mechanisms by which ethanol produces these defects, will rely on the use of animal models of fetal alcohol exposure (FAE).
Methods: Using a saccharin-sweetened alcohol solution, we developed a free-choice, moderate alcohol access model of prenatal alcohol exposure. Stable drinking of a saccharin solution (0.066%) was established in female mice. Ethanol then was added to the saccharin in increasing concentrations (2%, 5%, 10% w/v) every 2 days. Water was always available, and mice consumed standard pellet chow. Control mice drank saccharin solution without ethanol. After a stable baseline of ethanol consumption (14 g/kg/day) was obtained, females were impregnated. Ethanol consumption continued throughout pregnancy and then was decreased to 0% in a step-wise fashion over a period of 6 days after pups were delivered. Characterization of the model included measurements of maternal drinking patterns, blood alcohol levels, food consumption, litter size, pup weight, pup retrieval times for the dams, and effects of FAE on performance in fear-conditioned learning and novelty exploration.
Results: Maternal food consumption, maternal care, and litter size and number were all found to be similar for the alcohol-exposed and saccharin control animals. FAE did not alter locomotor activity in an open field but did increase the time spent inspecting a novel object introduced into the open field. FAE mice displayed reduced contextual fear when trained using a delay fear conditioning procedure.
Conclusions: The mouse model should be a useful tool in testing hypotheses about the neural mechanisms underlying the learning deficits present in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Moreover, a mouse prenatal ethanol model should increase the opportunity to use the power of genetically defined and genetically altered mouse populations.