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Small amounts of alcohol or anesthetics may damage the developing brain

weeks after the animal is born.

Nerve cells are genetically programmed to commit suicide if they fail to make synaptic connections on time. Alcohol and anesthetic drugs interfere with the brain's neurotransmitter systems and with the formation of those synaptic connections, automatically activating a signal within the neuron that directs it to commit suicide.

Olney believes the phenomenon his team is studying can be viewed as a "final common pathway" type of mechanism that might explain a wide range of developmental neuropsychiatric problems. Because different networks in the brain are organized at different times during synaptogenesis, different populations of cells will commit suicide in response to exposure to alcohol or anesthetic drugs depending on the timing of that exposure. Thus, exposure at one developmental stage may produce one type of disturbance while exposure at another period of development could produce a very different effect.

Consistent with that concept, at the same AAAS symposium, Columbia University psychiatrist Ezra Susser, M.D., and his colleagues reported new findings, soon to be published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, suggesting that young adults diagnosed with schizophrenia were significantly more likely to have been exposed to lead in the womb. Susser believes lead exposure also might cause damage through the cell suicide mechanism, with schizophrenia being the long-term consequence.

"The results of our study suggest that lead-induced prenatal damage to the developing brain may show itself decades following initial exposure to the substance," Susser says.

The idea that damage from exposure to substances such as alcohol, anesthetics and lead can contribute to a wide range of psychiatric illnesses also is supported by work from another speaker on the panel, Ann P. Streissguth, M.D., of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. She has followed the impac
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Contact: Jim Dryden
jdryden@wustl.edu
314-286-0110
Washington University School of Medicine
13-Feb-2004


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