Neonatal alcohol exposure permanently disrupts the circadian properties and photic entrainment of the activity rhythm in adult rats.
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BACKGROUND: Alcohol exposure during the period of rapid brain development produces structural damage in different brain regions, including the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), that may have permanent neurobehavioral consequences. Thus, this study examined the long-term effects of neonatal alcohol exposure on circadian behavioral activity in adult rats. METHODS: Artificially reared Sprague-Dawley rat pups were exposed to alcohol (EtOH; 4.5 g/kg/day) or isocaloric milk formula (gastrostomy control; GC) on postnatal days 4-9. At 2 months of age, rats from the EtOH, GC, and suckle control (SC) groups were housed individually, and properties of the circadian rhythm in wheel-running behavior were continuously analyzed during exposure to a 12-hr light:12-hr dark photoperiod (LD 12:12) or constant darkness (DD). RESULTS: Neonatal alcohol exposure had distinctive effects on the rhythmic properties and quantitative parameters of adult wheel-running behavior. EtOH-treated animals were distinguished by unstable and altered entrainment to LD 12:12 such that their daily onsets of activity were highly variable and occurred at earlier times relative to control animals. In DD, circadian regulation of wheel-running behavior was altered by neonatal alcohol exposure such that the free-running period of the activity rhythm was shorter in EtOH-exposed rats than in control animals. Total amount of daily wheel-running activity in EtOH-treated rats was greater than that observed in the SC group. In addition, the circadian activity patterns of EtOH-exposed rats were fragmented such that the duration of the active phase and the number of activity bouts per day were increased. CONCLUSIONS: These data indicate that neonatal alcohol exposure produces permanent changes in the circadian regulation of the rat activity rhythm and its entrainment to LD cycles. These long-term alterations in circadian behavior, along with the developmental alcohol-induced changes in SCN endogenous rhythmicity, may have important implications in clinical sleep-wake disturbances observed in neonates, children, and adults exposed to alcohol in utero.