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J Neurophysiol. 2005 Mar;93(3):1317-25. Epub 2004 Oct 13.

Early alcohol exposure induces persistent alteration of cortical columnar organization and reduced orientation selectivity in the visual cortex.

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Deptartment of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, Box 0709, 1101 East Marshall St., Rm. 12-042, Richmond, VA 23298-0709, USA.


Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a major cause of learning and sensory deficits in children. The visual system in particular is markedly affected, with an elevated prevalence of poor visual perceptual skills. Developmental problems involving the neocortex are likely to make a major contribution to some of these abnormalities. Neuronal selectivity to stimulus orientation, a functional property thought to be crucial for normal vision, may be especially vulnerable to alcohol exposure because it starts developing even before eye opening. To address this issue, we examined the effects of early alcohol exposure on development of cortical neuron orientation selectivity and organization of cortical orientation columns. Ferrets were exposed to ethanol starting at postnatal day (P) 10, when the functional properties and connectivity of neocortical neurons start to develop. Alcohol exposure ended at P30, just before eye opening at P32. Following a prolonged alcohol-free period (15-35 days), long-term effects of early alcohol exposure on cortical orientation selectivity were examined at P48-P65, when orientation selectivity in normal ferret cortex has reached a mature state. Optical imaging of intrinsic signals revealed decreased contrast of orientation maps in alcohol- but not saline-treated animals. Moreover, single-unit recordings revealed that early alcohol treatment weakened neuronal orientation selectivity while preserving robust visual responses. These findings indicate that alcohol exposure during a brief period of development disrupts cortical processing of sensory information at a later age and suggest a neurobiological substrate for some types of sensory deficits in FAS.

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