Adolescence is hallmarked by two parallel processes of sexual maturation and adult patterning of the brain. Therefore, adolescence represents a vulnerable postnatal period for neurodevelopment where exogenous factors can negatively impact adult brain function. For example, alcohol exposure during pubertal development can lead to long-term and widespread neurobiological dysfunction and these effects have been shown to persist even in the absence of future alcohol exposure. However, the molecular mechanisms mediating the persistent effects of alcohol are unclear. We propose that dysregulation of microRNAs (miR) could be a unifying epigenetic mechanism underlying these widespread long-term changes. We tested the hypothesis that repeated alcohol exposure during pubertal development would cause disruption of normal miR expression profiles during puberty and, subsequently, their downstream mRNA target genes in the ventral hippocampus using an established rat model of adolescent binge drinking. We found 6 alcohol-sensitive miRs that were all downregulated following alcohol exposure and we also investigated the normal age-dependent changes in those miRs throughout the pubertal period. Interestingly, these miRs were normally decreased throughout the process of puberty, but alcohol prematurely exacerbated the normal decline in miR expression levels. The work presented herein provides foundational knowledge about the expression patterns of miRs during this critical period of neurodevelopment. Further, this regulation of miR and mRNA expression by alcohol exposure presents a complex regulatory mechanism by which perturbation in this time-sensitive period could lead to long-term neurological consequences.
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