Myelination defects in the central nervous system (CNS) are associated with various psychiatric disorders, including drug addiction.
As these disorders are often observed in individuals prenatally exposed to cigarette smoking, scientist has tested the hypothesis that such exposure impairs central myelination in adolescence, an important period of brain development and the peak age of onset of psychiatric disorders.
To find out this, pregnant Sprague Dawley rats were treated with nicotine (3 mg/kg per day; gestational nicotine (GN)) or gestational saline via osmotic mini pumps from gestational days 4-18.
Both male and female offsprings were euthanized on postnatal day 35 or 36, and three limbic brain regions, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), caudate putamen and nucleus accumbens, were removed for measurement of gene expression and determination of morphological changes using quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR) array, western blotting and immunohistochemical staining.
Results revealed that GN altered myelin gene expression at both the mRNA and protein levels, with striking sex differences.
Aberrant expression of myelin-related transcription and trophic factors was seen in GN animals, which correlated highly with the alterations in the myelin gene expression.
These correlations suggest that these factors contribute to GN-induced alterations in myelin gene expression and also indicate abnormal function of oligodendrocytes (OLGs), the myelin-producing cells in the CNS.
It is unlikely that these changes are attributable solely to an alteration in the number of OLGs, as the cell number was changed only in the PFC of GN males.
Together, these findings suggest that abnormal brain myelination underlies various psychiatric disorders and drug abuse associated with prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke.
Keywords: oligodendrocytes, nicotine, brain myelination.