Background: Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can damage the developing fetus, illustrated by central nervous system dysfunction and deficits in motor and cognitive abilities. Binge drinking has been associated with an increased risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, likely due to increased episodes of ethanol withdrawal. We hypothesized that overactivity of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor during ethanol withdrawal leads to excitotoxic cell death in the developing brain. Consistent with this, administration of NMDA receptor antagonists (e.g., MK-801) during withdrawal can attenuate ethanol’s teratogenic effects. The aim of this study was to determine whether administration of memantine, an NMDA receptor antagonist, during ethanol withdrawal could effectively attenuate ethanol-related deficits, without the adverse side effects associated with other NMDA receptor antagonists.
Methods: Sprague–Dawley pups were exposed to 6.0 g/kg ethanol or isocaloric maltose solution via intubation on postnatal day 6, a period of brain development equivalent to a portion of the 3rd trimester. Twenty-four and 36 hours after ethanol, subjects were injected with 0, 10, or 15 mg/kg memantine, totaling doses of 0, 20, or 30 mg/kg. Motor coordination was tested on a parallel bar task and the total number of cerebellar Purkinje cells was estimated using unbiased stereology.
Results: Alcohol exposure induced significant parallel bar motor incoordination and reduced Purkinje cell number. Memantine administration significantly attenuated both ethanol-associated motor deficits and cerebellar cell loss in a dose-dependent manner.
Conclusions: Memantine was neuroprotective when administered during ethanol withdrawal. These data provide further support that ethanol withdrawal contributes to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.