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INTRODUCTION: Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) exhibit behavioral and affective dysregulation, including hyperactivity and depression. The mechanisms are not known, but they could conceivably be due to postnatal social or environmental factors. However, we postulate that, more likely, the affective dysregulation is associated with the effects of EtOH exposure on the development of fetal serotonergic (5-HT) and/or dopaminergic (DA) pathways, i.e., pathways that in postnatal life are believed to regulate mood. Many women who use alcohol (ethanol, EtOH) during pregnancy suffer from depression and take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which might influence these monoaminergic pathways in the fetus. Alternatively, monoaminergic pathway abnormalities might reflect a direct effect of EtOH on the fetal brain. To distinguish between these possibilities, we measured their expressions in fetal brains and in fetal brain-derived exosomes (FB-Es) isolated from the mothers' blood. We hypothesized that maternal use of EtOH and/or SSRIs during pregnancy would be associated with impaired fetal neural development, detectable as abnormal levels of monoaminergic and apoptotic biomarkers in FB-Es.

METHODS: Fetal brain tissues and maternal blood were collected at 9-23 weeks of pregnancy. EtOH groups were compared with unexposed controls matched for gestational age (GA). The expression of 84 genes associated with the DA and 5-HT pathways was analyzed by quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) on microarrays. FB-Es also were assayed for serotonin transporter protein (SERT) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA).

RESULTS: Six EtOH-exposed human fetal brain samples were compared to SSRI- or polydrug-exposed samples and to unexposed controls. EtOH exposure was associated with significant upregulation of DA receptor D3 and 5-HT receptor HTR2C, while HTR3A was downregulated. Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), MAOB, the serine/threonine kinase AKT3, and caspase-3 were upregulated, while mitogen-activated protein kinase 1 (MAPK1) and AKT2 were downregulated. ETOH was associated with significant upregulation of the DA transporter gene, while SERT was downregulated. There were significant correlations between EtOH exposure and (a) caspase-3 activation, (b) reduced SERT protein levels, and (c) reduced BDNF levels. SSRI exposure independently increased caspase-3 activity and downregulated SERT and BDNF. Early exposure to EtOH and SSRI together was associated synergistically with a significant upregulation of caspase-3 and a significant downregulation of SERT and BDNF. Reduced SERT and BDNF levels were strongly correlated with a reduction in eye diameter, a somatic manifestation of FASD.

CONCLUSIONS: Maternal use of EtOH and SSRI during pregnancy each was associated with changes in fetal brain monoamine pathways, consistent with potential mechanisms for the affective dysregulation associated with FASD.


Child, Female, Humans, Pregnancy, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, Caspase 3, Serotonin, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, Ethanol, Biomarkers


PMID: 38201206



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