Studies suggest brain injury results from developmental exposure to alcohol, anesthesia, and lead

at extent the human brain is also sensitive to this mechanism remains to be determined. While this issue is being resolved, it is best to avoid exposing fetuses or infants to general anesthetics whenever possible. For example, elective surgical procedures should be postponed, and surgical procedures that are absolutely necessary can in some cases be performed under a local anesthetic, or possibly with the aid of pain-killing drugs that eliminate all pain but do not put a patient to sleep. Feasibility of the latter approach is currently under study." He added that there is currently no indication of risk to the fetus following short-term exposure to the epidurals that women use to relieve pain during labor.

Olney said that nerve cells are genetically programmed to commit suicide if they fail to make synaptic connection on time. Alcohol and anesthetic drugs interfere with the brain's neurotransmitter systems, thereby retarding the formation of synaptic connections. This automatically activates a signal within the nerve cell directing it to commit suicide, a form of cell death known as "apoptosis." Olney noted that the apoptosis mechanism operates only during synaptogenesis, a developmental period "when nerve cells are growing rapidly and forming synaptic contacts required for becoming integrated into complex neural networks." The human brain goes through synaptogenesis from the sixth-month of gestation through the first few years after birth, leaving a period of several years when immature neurons would be vulnerable.

Research by Olney and his colleagues suggests that alcohol and anesthetic drugs are particularly effective in triggering neuroapoptosis in the developing brain because they use a dual mechanism to suppress neuronal activity. These substances decrease the amount of glutamate excitatory transmitter input, while increasing the amount of GABA inhibitory transmitter input - both actions tend to put nerve cells out of commission, so t

Contact: Monica Amarelo
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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