• Ethanol;
  • Brain development;
  • Neural cell adhesion molecules;
  • Sialyltransferase;
  • Astroglial cells

Abstract: Neural cell adhesion molecules (NCAMs) play critical roles during development of the nervous system. The aim of this study is to investigate the possible effect of ethanol exposure on the pattern of expression and sialylation of NCAM isoforms during postnatal rat brain development because alterations in NCAM content and distribution have been associated with defects in cell migration, synapse formation, and memory consolidation, and deficits in these processes have been observed after in utero alcohol exposure. The expression of NCAM isoforms in the developing cerebral cortex of pups from control and alcohol-fed mothers was assessed by western blotting, ribonuclease protection assay, and immunocytochemistry. The highly sialylated form of NCAM [polysialic acid (PSA)-NCAM] is mainly expressed during the neonatal period and then is down-regulated in parallel with the appearance of NCAM 180 and NCAM 140. Ethanol exposure increases PSA-NCAM levels during the neonatal period, delays the loss of PSA-NCAM, decreases the amount of NCAM 180 and NCAM 140 isoforms, and reduces sialyltransferase activity during postnatal brain development. Neuraminidase treatment of ethanol-exposed neonatal brains leads to more intense band degradation products, suggesting a higher content of NCAM polypeptides carrying PSA in these samples. However, NCAM mRNA levels are not changed by ethanol. Immunocytochemical analysis demonstrates that ethanol triggers an increase in PSA-NCAM immunolabeling in the cytoplasm of astroglial cells, accompanied by a decrease in immunogold particles over the plasma membrane. These findings indicate that ethanol exposure during brain development alters the pattern of NCAM expression and suggest that modification of NCAM could affect neuronal-glial interactions that might contribute to the brain defects observed after in utero alcohol exposure.