The rates of opioid use disorder during pregnancy have more than quadrupled in the last decade, resulting in numerous infants suffering exposure to opioids during the perinatal period, a critical period of central nervous system (CNS) development. Despite increasing use, the characterization and definition of the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the long-term neurodevelopmental impacts of opioid exposure commencing in utero remains incomplete. Thus, in consideration of the looming public health crisis stemming from the multitude of infants with prenatal opioid exposure entering school age, we undertook an investigation of the effects of perinatal methadone exposure in a novel preclinical model. Specifically, we examined the effects of opioids on the developing brain to elucidate mechanisms of putative neural cell injury, to identify diagnostic biomarkers and to guide clinical studies of outcome and follow-up. We hypothesized that methadone would induce a pronounced inflammatory profile in both dams and their pups, and be associated with immune system dysfunction, sustained CNS injury, and altered cognition and executive function into adulthood. This investigation was conducted using a combination of cellular, molecular, biochemical, and clinically translatable biomarker, imaging and cognitive assessment platforms. Data reveal that perinatal methadone exposure increases inflammatory cytokines in the neonatal peripheral circulation, and reprograms and primes the immune system through sustained peripheral immune hyperreactivity. In the brain, perinatal methadone exposure not only increases chemokines and cytokines throughout a crucial developmental period, but also alters microglia morphology consistent with activation, and upregulates TLR4 and MyD88 mRNA. This increase in neuroinflammation coincides with reduced myelin basic protein and altered neurofilament expression, as well as reduced structural coherence and significantly decreased fractional anisotropy on diffusion tensor imaging. In addition to this microstructural brain injury, adult rats exposed to methadone in the perinatal period have significant impairment in associative learning and executive control as assessed using touchscreen technology. Collectively, these data reveal a distinct systemic and neuroinflammatory signature associated with prenatal methadone exposure, suggestive of an altered CNS microenvironment, dysregulated developmental homeostasis, complex concurrent neural injury, and imaging and cognitive findings consistent with clinical literature. Further investigation is required to define appropriate therapies targeted at the neural injury and improve the long-term outcomes for this exceedingly vulnerable patient population.
Keywords: Cognition; Diffusion tensor imaging; Methadone; Microglia; Pregnancy; White matter.
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