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J Craniofac Genet Dev Biol. 1990;10(3):277-93.

Ethanol induces the generation of reactive free radicals by neural crest cells in vitro.

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Department of Anatomy, Baylor College of Dentistry, Dallas, Texas 75246.


Developmental craniofacial anomalies related to the neural crest derived ectomesenchymal cell population are associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Information regarding any potential relationship between ethanol, free radicals, and the viability, proliferation, etc., of isolated neural crest cells was sought. The hypersensitivity of neural crest cells to ethanol was observed. This drug severely depressed cell viability while simultaneously inducing the generation of such reactive oxygen intermediates (ROI) as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl anions. Addition of the free radical scavenging enzyme superoxide dismutase to the culture medium significantly reversed these effects of ethanol. The cytotoxicity of ethanol was further confirmed by the release of radiolabeled chromium (51Cr) from cells prelabeled prior to ethanol treatment. This effect was also depressed by the addition of superoxide dismutase. Interestingly, an assay for superoxide dismutase activity showed that neural crest cells may be devoid of this enzyme. The latter may help to explain the overt sensitivity of these cells to such a broad spectrum of teratogens, many of which can either dissociate directly into ROI, or cause the radicalization of biological structures and molecules. Plasmalemmal lipids (via lipid peroxidation) and DNA are at an especially high risk from uncontrolled ROI. Changes in neural crest cell surface morphology, i.e., loss of microvilli, formation of xeiotic blebs, as well as the "leakage" of radiolabeled Cr from prelabeled cells, would seem to show that ethanol, as a result of induced free radical formation, alters the physiology and biochemistry of the cell membrane. These findings however, should not exclude other potential sites for ETOH-induced cell injury related to free radicals, especially the nuclei (DNA), mitochondria, organelle membranes, and the cytoskeleton.

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