Generation of Neurons in the Rat Dentate Gyrus and Hippocampus: Effects of Prenatal and Postnatal Treatment with Ethanol


  • This study was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health (Grants AA 06916, AA 07568, and DE 07734).

Reprint requests: Michael W. Miller, M.D., Department of Psychiatry-MEB, University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, IA 52242-1000.


Neurons in the rat hippocampal formation (the dentate gyrus and the hippocampus) are born over a protracted period, from gestational day (G) 15 into adulthood. Dentate gyral neurons born prenatally are generated from the ventricular zone, whereas those born postnatally are derived from a secondary proliferative zone, the intrahilar zone. In contrast, hippocampal pyramidal neurons are generated only prenatally from the ventricular zone. In the neocortex, ethanol depresses the proliferation of cells in the ventricular zone and stimulates the proliferation of cells in the secondary proliferative zone. The present study tests the hypotheses that prenatal treatment with ethanol has a different effect on the generation of dentate gyral neurons than does postnatal ethanol treatment, and that these differences are determined by the timing of the ethanol exposure relative to the period and site of neuronal generation.

Rats were treated with ethanol between G6 and G21 or between postnatal day (P) 4 and P12. They were given an injection of [3H]thymidine on G15, G18, G21, P6, P9, or P12. Rats were killed on P30–P35. The tissue was processed by standard autoradiographic methods and assessed using rigorous stereological procedures. The total number of neurons and the density of radiolabeled neurons in both the dentate gyrus and the CA1 region of the hippocampus were determined.

Prenatal ethanol treatment decreased the total number of neurons in the CA1 segment of the hippocampus and had little impact on neuronal number in the dentate gyrus. Likewise, the number of hippocampal and dentate gyral neurons generated daily was significantly lower in ethanol-treated rats than in controls. Postnatal treatment to ethanol, however, significantly increased the total number of dentate gyral neurons and the density of neurons generated postnatally. These postnatal changes depended on the blood ethanol concentration (BEC). At moderate BECs, the total number of neurons in the dentate gyrus and the number of neurons generated was increased. At high BECs, however, neuronal number and neuronal generation were decreased. Postnatal ethanol treatment had no effect on the number of (total or radiolabeled) CA1 neurons.

Thus, pre- and postnatal exposure to ethanol have opposite effects both on the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus and on the generation of neurons. These paradoxical effects likely result from three causes: the differential effects of ethanol on the two proliferative zones, the critical period of neuronal development, and the potentially opposite effects of moderate and high BEC.