Background: In utero exposure of the fetal non-human primate (NHP) brain to alcohol on a single occasion during early or late third-trimester gestation triggers widespread acute apoptotic death of cells in both gray and white matter (WM) regions of the fetal brain. In a prior publication, we documented that the dying gray matter cells are neurons, and described the regional distribution and magnitude of this cell death response. Here, we present new findings regarding the magnitude, identity and maturational status of the dying WM cells in these alcohol-exposed fetal NHP brains. Results: Our findings document that the dying WM cells belong to the oligodendrocyte (OL) lineage. OLs become vulnerable when they are just beginning to generate myelin basic protein in preparation for myelinating axons, and they remain vulnerable throughout later stages of myelination. We found no evidence linking astrocytes, microglia or OL progenitors to this WM cell death response. The mean density (profiles per mm3) of dying WM cells in alcohol-exposed brains was 12.7 times higher than the mean density of WM cells dying by natural apoptosis in drug-naive control brains. Conclusions:In utero exposure of the fetal NHP brain to alcohol on a single occasion triggers widespread acute apoptotic death of neurons (previous study) and of OLs (present study) throughout WM regions of the developing brain. The rate of OL apoptosis in alcohol-exposed brains was 12.7 times higher than the natural OL apoptosis rate. OLs become sensitive to the apoptogenic action of alcohol when they are just beginning to generate constituents of myelin in their cytoplasm, and they remain vulnerable throughout later stages of myelination. There is growing evidence for a similar apoptotic response of both neurons and OLs following exposure of the developing brain to anesthetic and anticonvulsant drugs. Collectively, this body of evidence raises important questions regarding the role that neuro and oligo apoptosis may play in the human condition known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), and also poses a question whether other apoptogenic drugs, although long considered safe for pediatric/obstetric use, may have the potential to cause iatrogenic FASD-like developmental disability syndromes.
- Fetal monkey