The female brain appears selectively vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol, but the reasons for this are unclear. One possibility is an exaggerated neuroimmune response in the female brain, such that alcohol increases microglia number and reactivity to subsequent stimuli, such as exercise. It is important to better characterize the interactive neural effects of alcohol and exercise, as exercise is increasingly being used in the treatment of alcohol use disorders. The present study compared the number of microglia and evidence of their activation in alcohol-vulnerable regions of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus) in male and female rats following binge alcohol and/or exercise. Binge alcohol increased microglia number and morphological characteristics consistent with their activation in the female brain but not the male, regardless of exercise. Binge alcohol followed by exercise did increase the number of MHC II+ (immunocompetent) microglia in females, although the vast majority of microglia did not express MHC II. These results indicate that binge alcohol exerts sex-specific effects on microglia that may result in enhanced reactivity to a subsequent challenge and in part underlie the apparent selective vulnerability of the female brain to alcohol.
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