, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 385-396
Date: 31 Aug 2006

Long-term effect of moderate and profound hypothermia on morphology, neurological, cognitive and behavioural functions in a rat model of perinatal asphyxia

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Background. Perinatal asphyxia is a frequent cause of neurological handicap with no known therapy. However, hypothermic therapy has recently attracted attention owing to its neuroprotective property in brain of immature organisms.

Objectives. Hypothermia appears to be promising in reversing the immediate effect of perinatal asphyxia, but data on long-term neuroprotection is still lacking. We therefore intended to test the long-term effect of moderate and profound hypothermia on brain morphology and functions using a well established rat model of perinatal asphyxia.

Methods. Rat pups delivered by caesarean section were placed into a water bath, still in patent membranes, at 37 °C and variable hypothermic conditions to induce asphyxia and thereafter given to surrogate mothers. Examinations were performed at the age of three months, consisting of a battery of motor, behavioural, cognition and reflex tests including rota-rod, Morris water maze, multiple T-maze, elevated plus maze and open field studies. Morphological alterations were evaluated by Nissl staining of brain areas known to be hypoxia sensitive. Neurotransmission system markers, including tyrosine hydroxylase, vesicular monoamine transporter, vesicular acetylcholine transporter and excitatory amino acid carrier1 were analyzed by immunohistochemistry.

Results. Survival increased with hypothermia. The Nissl stain revealed neuronal loss in hippocampus and hypothalamus of normothermic asphyxiated group (20/37) compared to controls (0/37), but no neuroprotective patterns emerged from hypothermia. An overall inconsistent protection of the neural systems was noted by variable periods of hypothermia. Motor function was significantly impaired in 20/37 as compared to 0/37. In the Morris water maze and multiple T-maze, results were comparable between the groups. In the elevated plus maze, time spent in the closed arm was reduced and in the open field, vertical behaviour was altered in the 20/37 group with horizontal motor behaviour being unaffected. Hypothermia reversed all abnormalities seen in 20/37, with short-term moderate and profound hypothermia being superior to long-term hypothermia.

Conclusion. Hypothermia not only significantly increased survival, but also resulted in unimpaired motor as well as improved cognitive functions. Those findings are in contrast to altered brain morphology. As neuronal loss was present in various brain regions, we conclude that deficits may be compensated in the maturing animal. Intrahypoxic hypothermia was able to protect the rat from the devastating effect of perinatal asphyxia not in morphological, but in functional terms.

The first and third authors have contributed equally to this work.