Dose-dependent effects of prenatal ethanol exposure on synaptic plasticity and learning in mature offspring. Academic Article uri icon


  • We have observed profound deficits in hippocampal synaptic plasticity and one-trial learning in offspring whose mothers drank moderate quantities of ethanol during pregnancy. In the present study, we examined the question of whether lower maternal blood ethanol concentrations (BECs) could produce functional deficits in offspring.Rat dams consumed either a 2%, 3%, or 5% ethanol liquid diet throughout gestation. Three other groups of dams were pair-fed a 0% ethanol liquid diet, and a seventh group consumed lab chow ad libitum. Adult offspring from each diet group were assigned either to studies of evoked [3H]-D-aspartate (D-ASP) release from hippocampal slices or spatial learning studies using the Morris Water Task.Consumption of the 2%, 3%, and 5% ethanol liquid diets produced mean peak maternal BECs of 7, 30 and 83 mg/dL, respectively. Consumption of these ethanol diets had no effect on offspring birthweight, litter size or neonatal mortality. Likewise, evoked D-ASP release from hippocampal slices and performance on a standard version of the Morris Water Task were not affected by prenatal ethanol exposure. By contrast, activity-dependent potentiation of evoked D-ASP release from slices and one-trial learning on a "moving platform" version of the Morris Water Task were markedly reduced in offspring whose mothers consumed the 5% ethanol liquid diet. Intermediate deficits in these two parameters were observed in offspring from the 3% ethanol diet group, whereas offspring from the 2% ethanol diet group were not statistically different than controls.We conclude that the threshold for eliciting subtle, yet significant learning deficits in offspring prenatally exposed to ethanol is less than 30 mg/dL. This BEC is roughly equivalent to drinking 1 to 1.5 ounces of ethanol per day.

publication date

  • January 1, 2002