Ethanol induces neurodegeneration in the developing brain, which may partially explain the long-lasting adverse effects of prenatal ethanol exposure in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). While animal models of FASD show that ethanol-induced neurodegeneration is associated with glial activation, the relationship between glial activation and neurodegeneration has not been clarified. This review focuses on the roles of activated microglia and astrocytes in neurodegeneration triggered by ethanol in rodents during the early postnatal period (equivalent to the third trimester of human pregnancy). Previous literature indicates that acute binge-like ethanol exposure in postnatal day 7 (P7) mice induces apoptotic neurodegeneration, transient activation of microglia resulting in phagocytosis of degenerating neurons, and a prolonged increase in glial fibrillary acidic protein-positive astrocytes. In our present study, systemic administration of a moderate dose of lipopolysaccharides, which causes glial activation, attenuates ethanol-induced neurodegeneration. These studies suggest that activation of microglia and astrocytes by acute ethanol in the neonatal brain may provide neuroprotection. However, repeated or chronic ethanol can induce significant proinflammatory glial reaction and neurotoxicity. Further studies are necessary to elucidate whether acute or sustained glial activation caused by ethanol exposure in the developing brain can affect long-lasting cellular and behavioral abnormalities observed in the adult brain.
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