Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are often associated with structural and functional hippocampal abnormalities, leading to long-lasting learning and memory deficits. The mechanisms underlying these abnormalities are not fully understood. Here, we investigated whether ethanol exposure during the 3rd trimester-equivalent period alters spontaneous network activity that is involved in neuronal circuit development in the CA3 hippocampal region. This activity is driven by GABA(A) receptors, which can have excitatory actions in developing neurons as a consequence of greater expression of the Cl(-) importer, NKCC1, with respect to expression of the Cl(-) exporter, KCC2, resulting in high [Cl(-)](i). Rat pups were exposed to ethanol vapor from postnatal day (P) 2-16 (4 h/day). Weight gain was significantly reduced in pups exposed to ethanol compared to control at P15 and 16. Brain slices were prepared immediately after the end of the 4-h exposure on P4-16 and experiments were also performed under ethanol-free conditions at the end of the exposure paradigm (P17-22). Ethanol exposure did not significantly affect expression of KCC2 or NKCC1, nor did it affect network activity in the CA3 hippocampal region. Ethanol exposure significantly decreased the frequency (at P9-11) and increased the amplitude (at P5-8 and P17-21) of GABA(A) receptor-mediated miniature postsynaptic currents. These data suggest that repeated in vivo exposure to ethanol during the 3rd trimester-equivalent period alters GABAergic transmission in the CA3 hippocampal region, an effect that could lead to abnormal circuit maturation and perhaps contribute to the pathophysiology of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
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