Microglia Modulate Brainstem Serotonergic Expression Following Neonatal Sustained Hypoxia Exposure: Implications for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

J Physiol. 2016 Jun 1;594(11):3079-94. doi: 10.1113/JP271845. Epub 2016 Feb 21.


Key points: Neonatal sustained hypoxia exposure modifies brainstem microglia and serotonin expression. The altered brainstem neurochemistry is associated with impaired ventilatory responses to acute hypoxia and mortality. The deleterious effects of sustained hypoxia exposure can be prevented by an inhibitor of activated microglia. These observations demonstrate a potential cause of the brainstem serotonin abnormalities thought to be involved in sudden infant death syndrome.

Abstract: We showed previously that the end of the second postnatal week (days P11-15) represents a period of development during which the respiratory neural control system exhibits a heightened vulnerability to sustained hypoxia (SH, 11% O2 , 5 days) exposure. In the current study, we investigated whether the vulnerability to SH during the same developmental time period is associated with changes in brainstem serotonin (5-HT) expression and whether it can be prevented by the microglia inhibitor minocycline. Using whole-body plethysmography, SH attenuated the acute (5 min) hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR) and caused a high incidence of mortality compared to normoxia rats. SH also increased microglia cell numbers and decreased 5-HT immunoreactivity in the nucleus of the solitary tract (nTS) and dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMNV). The attenuated HVR, mortality, and changes in nTS and DMNV immunoreactivity was prevented by minocycline (25 mg kg(-1) /2 days during SH). These data demonstrate that the 5-HT abnormalities in distinct respiratory neural control regions can be initiated by prolonged hypoxia exposure and may be modulated by microglia activity. These observations share several commonalities with the risk factors thought to underlie the aetiology of sudden infant death syndrome, including: (1) a vulnerable neonate; (2) a critical period of development; (3) evidence of hypoxia; (4) brainstem gliosis (particularly the nTS and DMNV); and (5) 5-HT abnormalities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Brain Stem / drug effects
  • Brain Stem / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Hypoxia / drug therapy
  • Hypoxia / genetics
  • Hypoxia / metabolism*
  • Microglia / drug effects
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Minocycline / pharmacology
  • Minocycline / therapeutic use
  • Pregnancy
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew
  • Serotonin / biosynthesis*
  • Serotonin / genetics


  • Serotonin
  • Minocycline