Labor and a vaginal delivery trigger changes in peripheral organs that prepare the mammalian fetus to survive ex utero. Surprisingly little attention has been given to whether birth also influences the brain, and to how alterations in birth mode affect neonatal brain development. These are important questions, given the high rates of cesarean section (C-section) delivery worldwide, many of which are elective. We examined the effect of birth mode on neuronal cell death, a widespread developmental process that occurs primarily during the first postnatal week in mice. Timed-pregnant dams were randomly assigned to C-section deliveries that were yoked to vaginal births to carefully match gestation length and circadian time of parturition. Compared with rates of cell death just before birth, vaginally-born offspring had an abrupt, transient decrease in cell death in many brain regions, suggesting that a vaginal delivery is neuroprotective. In contrast, cell death was either unchanged or increased in C-section-born mice. Effects of delivery mode on cell death were greatest for the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), which is central to the stress response and brain-immune interactions. The greater cell death in the PVN of C-section-delivered newborns was associated with a reduction in the number of PVN neurons expressing vasopressin at weaning. C-section-delivered mice also showed altered vocalizations in a maternal separation test and greater body mass at weaning. Our results suggest that vaginal birth acutely impacts brain development, and that alterations in birth mode may have lasting consequences.
Keywords: C-section; apoptosis; parturition; prenatal; vasopressin.