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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1995 Nov 21; 92(24): 11029–11033.

Selective neuronal toxicity of cocaine in embryonic mouse brain cocultures.


Cocaine exposure in utero causes severe alterations in the development of the central nervous system. To study the basis of these teratogenic effects in vitro, we have used cocultures of neurons and glial cells from mouse embryonic brain. Cocaine selectively affected embryonic neuronal cells, causing first a dramatic reduction of both number and length of neurites and then extensive neuronal death. Scanning electron microscopy demonstrated a shift from a multipolar neuronal pattern towards bi- and unipolarity prior to the rounding up and eventual disappearance of the neurons. Selective toxicity of cocaine on neurons was paralleled by a concomitant decrease of the culture content in microtubule-associated protein 2 (MAP2), a neuronal marker measured by solid-phase immunoassay. These effects on neurons were reversible when cocaine was removed from the culture medium. In contrast, cocaine did not affect astroglial cells and their glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) content. Thus, in embryonic neuronal-glial cell cocultures, cocaine induces major neurite perturbations followed by neuronal death without affecting the survival of glial cells. Provided similar neuronal alterations are produced in the developing human brain, they could account for the qualitative or quantitative defects in neuronal pathways that cause a major handicap in brain function following in utero exposure to cocaine.

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