We investigated the immunohistochemical expression of substance P (SP) in the brainstems of 56 subjects aged from 17 gestational weeks to 10 post natal months, who died of unknown (sudden unexplained fetal deaths and SIDS) and known causes (controls). The goals of this study were: (i) to obtain basic information about the expression of SP during the first phases of human nervous system development; (ii) to evaluate whether there are alterations of this neuromodulator in victims of sudden death; and (iii) to verify any correlation with maternal cigarette smoking. Immunohistochemistry demonstrated SP immunoreactivity in the caudal trigeminal nucleus area, with a progressive increase in the density of SP-positive fibers of the corresponding tract during normal development from fetal life to the first post natal months. Delineation of the structure of the human trigeminal nucleus, little investigated so far, provided essential data on its morphologic and functional development. Instead, a negative or low SP expression was detectable in the fibers of this tract in a wide subset of SIDS victims and, conversely, a high SP-expression in a wide subset of sudden fetal deaths. We postulate, on the basis of these results, that SP has a functional importance in the early phases of central nervous system development and in the regulation of autonomic functions. In addition, the observation of a significant correlation between sudden unexplained death, altered SP staining and maternal smoking leads us to suggest a close relation between the absorption of cigarette smoke in utero and a decreased functional activity of the trigeminal nucleus, that can trigger sudden death of the fetus during pregnancy or of the infant in the first months of life.
© 2011 Japanese Society of Neuropathology.