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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Dev Neurosci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 July 7.
Published in final edited form as:
Published online 2009 April 17. doi:  10.1159/000207493
PMCID: PMC2898564

This article has been retractedRetraction in: Dev Neurosci. 2012 March 19; 33(6): 548    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Lability of Neuronal Lineage Decisions Is Revealed by Acute Exposures to Ethanol


Developing neurons pass through periods of sensitivity to environmental factors, e.g., alterations induced by ethanol are defined when the exposure occurs. We tested the hypothesis that timely episodic prenatal exposure to ethanol can change the lineage of cortical neurons. This study exploited mice in which many layer V neurons expressed a Thy1-YFPh transgene and endogenously fluoresced yellow. Fetuses were exposed to ethanol or saline on gestational day (G) 14 (when layer V neurons were generated) or on G 15 or 17 (when these layer V neurons were migrating). Fetuses dosed on G 14 exhibited an increased frequency of YFP+ neurons across cortex. This contrasted with a decreased frequency following ethanol exposure on G 17. Ethanol did not affect overall density of layer V neurons or their generation. Thus, the magnitude and valence of ethanol-induced changes in YFP+ neurons are time-dependent. Cell lineage is defined at the time of origin and the window of lability for this definition continues into the early post-mitotic (migratory) period.

Keywords: Alcohol, Cerebral cortex, Fate, Fetal alcohol syndrome, Layer V, Lineage, Pyramidal cells, Stem cells


Brain development depends on a sequence of cellular and molecular events underlying the process of neuronal generation. Through this sequence, neuronal identity is restricted and defined. The generation of specific classes of neurons is a complex process that can be subdivided into a series of steps. Broad distinctions between classes of neurons are largely accomplished through spatially distinct localization of neural progenitor pools. Cortical neurons are derived from proliferating neural stem cells in regions proximal to the ventricle: the ventricular zone, subventricular zone, and the medial ganglionic eminence [Angevine and Sidman, 1961; Miller, 1989, 1992; Anderson et al., 1997; Rubenstein, 2000; Wichterle el al., 2001; Anderson et al., 2002; Monuki et al., 2001]. Projection neurons (PNs) are derived from sub/ventricular zone cells, and local circuit neurons are largely derived from neural stem cells in the medial ganglionic eminence.

Refined cell class information is at least partially encoded by birth order; the time of origin of a neuron defines its ultimate laminar residence. In the developing rodent neocortex, precursors within the neuroepithelium initially produce cohorts of neurons that populate the deeper layers of the cerebral cortex, whereas, later in gestation, the neuroepithelium generates neurons that populate the upper layers of the cerebral cortex [Angevine and Sidman, 1961; Brückner et al., 1976; Miller, 1985, 1989]. Transplantation studies suggest that laminar assignment occurs when a neuronal progenitor passes through the S-phase of its last cell cycle [McConnell and Kaznowski, 1991], and that the factors that act to program (and reprogram) the laminar fate of neural progenitors act over short distances [Bohner et al., 1997]. Additional aspects of lineage (e.g., areal identity such as somatosensory vs. motor cortex) are determined by early cues, and other aspects (e.g., refinement of projection patterns) are determined by later cues [e.g., Barbe and Levitt, 1995; Levitt et al., 1997; Nakagawa et al., 1999].

Early exposure to ethanol can affect cell lineage. Among the cells in the embryonic telencephalic wall are proliferating pluripotential cells, i.e., neural stem cells [Kentroti and Vernadakis, 1992, 1995]. Some evidence supports the possibility that ethanol causes a selective elimination of cells with a particular lineage (i.e., after lineages are determined, yet discrimination is undetectable) [Kentroti and Vernadakis, 1996]. Based on other evidence, it can be argued that ethanol causes cells to switch their fates [Brodie and Vernadakis, 1992; Kentroti and Vernadakis, 1992]. Likewise, prenatal exposure to ethanol can affect select subpopulations of cortical neurons, e.g., the numbers of callosal [Miller, 1997; Qiang et al., 2002] and corticospinal PNs [Miller, 1987] increase. These increases are associated with relative increases in the size of the associated axonal tract: the corpus callosum [Miller et al., 1999; Livy and Elberger, 2001] and the pyramidal tract [Miller and Al-Rabiai, 1994]. Conceivably, ethanol alters the lineage decision of the cortical PN responsible for these pathways. The present study explores the effects of acute episodes of ethanol exposure on the lineage of cortical PNs.


Care and Treatment of Mice

C57BL6/J and YFPh mice (B6.Cg-Tg, Thy1-YFPH, 2Jrs/J) [Feng et al., 2000] were obtained from The Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, Me., USA). Thy1-YFPh mice have a transgene incorporated into their genome that expresses yellow fluorescent protein (YFP) under the control of the Thy1h promoter. In these animals, YFP is expressed selectively in large layer V pyramidal neurons in most areas of the neocortex.

Mice were cared for by the Department of Laboratory Animal Resources at Upstate Medical University and were treated according to a protocol approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The animals were provided with food and water ad libitum and kept on a 12-hour light-dark cycle. Hemizygous transgenic males of the Thy1-YFPh line were mated with C57BL6/J dams, and the first morning of plug discovery was declared gestational day (G) 1. Pups derived from these matings expressed the transgene in the expected Mendelian ratio (50:50).

Animals were dosed with ethanol via a pair of intraperioneal injections on G 14, 15, or 17. At noon on the gestational day of interest, pregnant dams were injected with 2.90 g ethanol/kg. Two hours later, the animals received a second injection of 1.45 g/kg [Mooney and Miller, 2007]. Control dams received a pair of injections of 0.10 M phosphate buffered saline (PBS). Pregnant mice from both treatment groups were administered with bromode-oxyuridine (BrdU) at the same time as the second ethanol/saline injection. The BrdU was reconstituted in 0.070 N NaOH, and injected at a concentration of 50 mg/kg to label cells in S-phase at the time of injection [Miller and Nowakowski, 1988]. Three or 4 mice in each treatment group were injected with BrdU on G 14, 15, or 17.

Ethanol Monitoring

Blood samples were obtained from clipped tails. Blood ethanol concentration (BEC) was determined for each pregnant dam 2 h after the second ethanol dosing, providing sufficient time for the BEC to peak [Mooney and Miller, 2007]. BEC was determined using the Analox GM7 analyzer (Analox Instruments, Lunenburg, Mass., USA). The mean BEC for the ethanol-treated pups was 225 ± 30 mg/dl (n = 9) compared to 8.1 ± 1.3 mg/dl for the controls (n = 9).

Tissue Processing

Deeply anesthetized (60 mg/kg ketamine and 7.5 mg/kg xylazine) animals were euthanized on postnatal day (P) 37 by transcardial perfusion with 50 ml PBS and approximately 200 ml 4.0% paraformaldehyde in 0.10 M phosphate buffer for 30 min. Brains were removed and post-fixed in 4.0% paraformaldehyde/PBS for a minimum of 24 h at 4 °C. Brains were divided along the sagittal midline and the left hemispheres were processed. Hemispheres were embedded in 10% calfskin gelatin (Sigma-Aldrich, St. Louis, Mo., USA), post-fixed for an additional day in 4.0% paraformaldehyde in PBS, and cut into a series of parasagittal sections (100 μm thick) with a Lancer Vibratome (Pella, Redding, Calif., USA).

To detect cells that incorporated the BrdU, sections were acidified for 15–30 min in 3.4 N HCl and then quickly neutralized with 0.5× Tris-Borate-EDTA buffer. After a wash in PBS, sections were incubated overnight with an anti-BrdU rat monoclonal antibody (Serotec, Raleigh, N.C., USA), washed in PBS washes, and incubated in a solution of Cy3-labeled anti-rat antibody (Jackson ImmunoResearch, West Grove, Pa., USA). Both primary and secondary antibodies were diluted in PBS containing 2% bovine serum albumin (Fraction V, Sigma, St. Louis, Mo., USA) and 0.10% Triton X-100 (Sigma). The sections were counter-stained with the nuclear stain propidium iodide (PI; 1.0 μg/ml) followed by 3 washes in PBS. The PI was used in the identification of cortical laminae and in the qualitative analyses of total cell and neuronal numbers. After processing, all sections were mounted on slides in mounting medium (90% glycerol, 50 mM Tris buffer pH 7.4).

Morphological Analyses

Sections were examined with a BioRad MRC 1024 MRC (Upstate Medical University BioImaging Research Core, Syracuse, N.Y., USA). Fluorescence was detected in a z-series of images through 60 μm in the middle of the section at 4.0 μm intervals. Images were acquired using identical settings (i.e., the laser power, gain, black level, scan speed, confocal pinhole setting) to ensure consistent detection sensitivity. Image acquisition was performed blind to the treatment group.

The frequencies of YFP+ and BrdU+ cells were determined as the ratio of the number of labeled cells in the counting box divided by the sum of the YFP+ or BrdU+ cells and the single-labeled PI+ cells. The density of PI-labeled cells (neuron and overall) were determined using the optical disector method [e.g., Gundersen et al., 1988; Mooney and Miller, 2001]. A rectangular unbiased counting frame of known area was placed over the images. The number of cells within the counting box or intersecting with the 3 inclusion planes were counted. The number of cells (Q) and the number of frames (Σframe) were recorded. Cell density (NV), i.e., the number of cells in a defined volume (V), were calculated using the following formula NV = ΣQ/[(Σframe) (aframe) (t)] in which aframe is the area of the counting frame and t is the depth of the counting box.

Data were based on 5 or 6 mice per injection time per treatment, and only 1 mouse per treatment group per litter was used. The only exception was the in the BrdU studies, 3 or 4 mice were used for each data point. After completing the analysis, the data were sorted based on the treatment group (ethanol vs. control and the timing of the exposure). These data were compared by analyses of variance. In cases where significant (p < 0.05) differences were detected, post hoc Tukey B tests were performed.


In the control-treated mice, the YFP+ cells were confined to layer V. These cells had the characteristic features of pyramidal neurons: large pyriform or pyramidal cell bodies giving rise to single apical processes and sets of basal dendrites. The greatest density was in rostral cortex (motorsomatosensory cortex), and density decreased with more caudal positions. Thus, the fewest YFP+ neurons were evident in occipital cortex.

Ethanol treatment on G 14, 15, or 17 had no appreciable effect on this distribution (fig. 1). A single episode of ethanol exposure on G 14 caused a significant (p < 0.05) increase in the frequency of YFP+ neurons through the rostrocaudal extent of the cerebral cortex at P 37.

Fig. 1
Ethanol-induced alterations in the distribution of YFP+ neurons. Cortical YFP expression at P 37 was altered by a single episode of ethanol exposure on G 14, 15, or 17. Scale bars = 1.0 mm (a). Single optical sections from confocal Z-series illustrate ...

Quantitative analysis of the neuronal frequency assessed for the effects of treatment on G 14, 15, or 17 (fig. 2). Exposure on G 14 led to a significant (p < 0.05) increase in the frequency of YFP+ neurons, e.g., in the rostral cortex, the frequency of YFP+ neurons doubled. Similar increases were evident in middle and caudal levels of cortex. Exposure to an episode of ethanol on G 15 had no detectable change in the number of YFP+ neurons. On the other hand, exposure on G 17 led to a significant (p < 0.05) decrease in the frequency of YFP+ neurons. The frequency of YFP+ neurons was halved throughout cortex as exemplified in figure 2 for sites in the rostral, middle, and caudal cortex.

Fig. 2
Frequency of YFP+ neurons. The number of YFP+ neurons divided by the sum of labeled and unlabeled neurons in layer V was calculated as the labeling frequency. This frequency was significantly (p < 0.05) affected by exposure to ethanol on G 14 ...

Analyses of the density of PI-labeled cells did not reveal any significant changes. This lack of change was evident in comparisons across age and between the treatment groups (fig. 3).

Fig. 3
Neuronal density. Mice were exposed to ethanol on G 14, 15, or 17 and pups were euthanized on P 37. Sections were labeled with the nuclear stain propidium iodide. The density of labeled cells (a) and neurons (b) in layer V was stereologically determined. ...

Regardless of the prenatal treatment, cells labeled with an injection of BrdU on G 14, 15, or 17 were largely distributed in layers V, IV, and II/III, respectively (fig. 4). That is, the episodic exposure to ethanol did not appear to affect final cortical residence. The frequency of BrdU-labeled cells labeled by a particular injection was unaffected by the ethanol (fig. 5). This was further pursued by examining the quality of the BrdU immunolabeling. Staining was designated as solid (intense) or speckled (weak). This discrimination is akin to the segregation of cells as heavily- and lightly-labeled in [3H]thymidine autoradiographic studies [e.g., Miller, 1988]. Such a discrimination may be beyond the limits of the immunohistochemical method and is certainly quasiquantitative, but they may be indicative of the sequence of the development of cortical neurons.

Fig. 4
Distribution of cells labeled with BrdU. BrdU was administered concurrently with ethanol on G 14, 15, or 17. On P 37, most BrdU+ cells labeled by an injection on G 14 were distributed in layer V. Cells labeled by injections on G 15 or G 17 were located ...
Fig. 5
Frequency of BrdU-labeled cells. The labeling frequency for BrdU was determined for mice administered with BrdU on G 14, 15, or 17. Cells with solid and speckled immunolabeling were counted separately. No discernible differences were detectable (n = 3 ...

Two consistent patterns were evident: (1) more BrdU+ cells had a speckled pattern of labeling; (2) the speckle-labeled cells were more broadly distributed and tended to be located in more superficial positions (fig. 4). Ethanol caused no appreciable difference in the distribution of solid and speckled cells. Moreover, the frequency of the solid and speckled cells was not significantly different between ethanol- and control-treated groups (fig. 5).


Ethanol exposure appears to alter neuronal subtype specification among the developing layer V neurons at 2 distinct time points. Ethanol exposure on G 14 increased the density of YFP+ neurons at all 3 cortical sites examined. In contrast, when the exposure was on G 17, the density of YFP+ neurons fell. Thus, the effects of ethanol are time-dependent. Alterations in YFP labeling frequency could be accredited to: (1) a change in amount of YFP expression per cell in the absence of changing the number of YFP+ cells, (2) a change in the amount of cell death and/or cell generation, or (3) shifts in cell lineage. A parsimonious interpretation of our data argues for an ethanol-induced change in cell lineage.

The amount of Thy1-YFP transgene expression does not appear to be directly affected by ethanol; it is similar in experimental and control mice. Given the delay between gestational treatment and the onset of YFP expression around P 9 in normal mice [Hu, unpublished results], it is unlikely that ethanol exposure directly regulates the activity of the Thy1 promoter. It is more likely that ethanol exposure perturbs gestational events that in turn alter Thy1-YFPh expression several weeks later. In this sense, the relationship between Thy1-YFPh expression and gestational ethanol exposure appears to be indirect.

Neuronal generation is a potential contributor to the ethanol-induced change in the frequency of YFP+ neurons. Chronic exposure during gestation can affect neuronogenesis [Miller, 1986; 1987; 1988; 1997] and, specifically, cell proliferation [Miller, 2006] through direct means, i.e., occur during the time of ethanol exposure [e.g., Kennedy and Elliott, 1985; Miller, 1989; 1999; Miller and Nowakowski, 1991], or indirect means, as evidenced by a delayed change in neuronal number [Miller, 1995; 1999].

It is difficult to segregate the contributions of specific processes that contribute to neuronal generation (cell proliferation, neuronal migration, and neuronal death) using the incorporation of a thymidine analog (be it BrdU or tritiated thymidine). This is particularly challenging in studies of acute manipulations because compensatory responses can occur. Minimally, based on the lack of an ethanol-induced change in the total number of BrdU-labeled cells, the data from the incorporation studies are consistent with the conclusion that acute exposure to ethanol during gestation has no effect on neuronal generation. Moreover, we can speculate that ethanol has no effects on the underlying processes. No difference in the density or distribution of first and later generated neurons, presumably noted by solid and speckled immunolabeling, respectively, is evident. The implication is that cell proliferation is unaffected. The distribution of the BrdU+ neurons in cortex is the same in ethanol- and control-treated mice. This suggests that the outcome of neuronal migration is unaffected by acute gestational ethanol exposure.

It is well documented that ethanol can cause the death of neurons in vivo [Miller, 1995; 1999; Mooney et al., 2006]. In vitro studies show that this effect can be immediate [Seabold et al., 1998; Jacobs and Miller, 2001] and in vivo studies show that prenatal exposure to ethanol can cause the delayed death of postmitotic postmigratory neurons [Miller, 1995; 1999]. In the present study, however, there is no evidence that episodic exposure to ethanol during gestation affects neuronal survival. After all, the total number of neurons in layer V is wholly unaffected by ethanol treatment on G 14, 15, or 17.

In the absence of a change in neuronal generation or death, we are compelled to conclude that ethanol affects the lineage of the young neurons. This is consistent with in ovo and in vitro studies of neurons with specific neurotransmitter phenotypes [Kentroti and Vernadakis, 1992; 1995; 1996] and in vivo studies of cortical local circuit neurons expressing different calcium-binding proteins [Granato, 2006; Cuzon et al., 2008]. The latter studies are interesting in that they show that chronic prenatal exposure to ethanol causes changes that diametrically differ from changes induced by early postnatal exposure. Unfortunately, they used a paradigm of chronic ethanol exposure. In the present study, ethanol was delivered over a short period of time. It shows: (1) that cell lineage can be altered at the time a proliferating cell is passing through its last cell cycle and (2) that the window of malleability remains open for days. Though the generation and survival of a neuron is susceptible to ethanol toxicity, the lineage of a cell is more vulnerable. Such subtle changes in the neurons comprising cortex and in intracortical circuitry likely contribute to the mental dysfunction associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.


We thank Julie Ritchie and Zachary Beckman for help in generating the samples and Eric Olson for his assistance in all phases of this project. Support for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health (M.W.M., AA06916 and AA07568; H.H., HD44011) and the Department of Veterans Affairs.


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