Persistent deficits in social behavior are among the major negative consequences associated with exposure to ethanol during prenatal development. Prior work from our laboratory has linked deficits in social behavior following moderate prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) in the rat to functional alterations in the ventrolateral frontal cortex . In addition to social behaviors, the regions comprising the ventrolateral frontal cortex are critical for diverse processes ranging from orofacial motor movements to flexible alteration of behavior in the face of changing consequences. The broader behavioral implications of altered ventrolateral frontal cortex function following moderate PAE have, however, not been examined. In the present study we evaluated the consequences of moderate PAE on social behavior, tongue protrusion, and flexibility in a variant of the Morris water task that required modification of a well-established spatial response. PAE rats displayed deficits in tongue protrusion, reduced flexibility in the spatial domain, increased wrestling, and decreased investigation, indicating that several behaviors associated with ventrolateral frontal cortex function are impaired following moderate PAE. A linear discriminant analysis revealed that measures of wrestling and tongue protrusion provided the best discrimination of PAE rats from saccharin-exposed control rats. We also evaluated all behaviors in young adult (4-5 months) or older (10-11 months) rats to address the persistence of behavioral deficits in adulthood and possible interactions between early ethanol exposure and advancing age. Behavioral deficits in each domain persisted well into adulthood (10-11 months), however, there was no evidence that aging enhances the effects of moderate PAE within the age ranges that were studied.
Keywords: Aggression; Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; Fetal alcohol syndrome; Morris water task; Prefrontal cortex; Spatial navigation.
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