Introduction: In the developing brain neuronal differentiation is associated with permanent exit from the mitotic cycle. Neuronal nuclear antigen (NeuN) is a nuclear protein widely expressed in the mature postmitotic neurons.
Methods: We applied NeuN immunocytochemistry in 65 cases of perinatal death (16 victims of sudden intrauterine unexplained death syndrome/SIUDS, 19 of sudden infant death syndrome/SIDS and 30 controls) to test the physiological status of the brain neurons. In addition we applied both TUNEL and Caspase 3 immunohistochemical methods in order to highlight a possible relation between decreased NeuN expression and apoptotic outcome. We also attempted to see whether or not NeuN pathological changes can be related to cigarette smoke absorption in pregnancy.
Results: NeuN staining was considerably reduced or lost in SIUDS/SIDS compared to controls. However neurons with decreased NeuN-labeling showed no sign of apoptosis. A significant association was found between NeuN depletion and maternal smoking.
Conclusion: Altered NeuN expression can be a marker of immature and/or suffering neurons. The exclusive presence of this pattern of expression in SIUDS/SIDS victims, leads us to recommend the NeuN immunohistochemistry as a routine method in neuropathological protocols to convalidate a diagnosis of sudden perinatal death.
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