, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 178-187

The effects of ethanol on the developing cerebellum and eyeblink classical conditioning

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Abstract

In rats, developmental ethanol exposure has been used to model the central nervous system deficits associated with human fetal alcohol syndrome. Binge-like ethanol exposure of neonatal rats depletes cells in the cerebellum, including Purkinje cells, granule cells, and deep nuclear cells, and produces deficits in simple tests of motor coordination. However, the extent to which anatomical damage is related to behavioral deficits has been difficult to estimate. Eyeblink classical conditioning is known to engage a discrete brain stem-cerebellar circuit, making it an ideal test of cerebellar functional integrity after developmental ethanol exposure. Eyeblink conditioning is a simple form of motor learning in which a neutral stimulus (such as a tone) comes to elicit an eyeblink when repeatedly paired with a stimulus that evokes an eyeblink prior to training (such as mild periorbital stimulation). In eyeblink conditioning, one of the deep cerebellar nuclei, the interpositus nucleus, as well as specific Purkinje cell populations, are sites of convergence for tone conditioned stimulus and somatosensory unconditioned stimulus information, and, together with brain stem nuclei, provide the necessary and sufficient substrate for the learned response. A series of studies have shown that eyeblink conditioning is impaired in both weanling and adult rats given binge-like exposure to ethanol as neonates. In addition, interpositus nucleus neurons from ethanol-exposed rats showed impaired activation during eyeblink conditioning. These deficits are accompanied by a permanent reduction in the deep cerebellar nuclear cell population. Because particular cerebellar cell populations are utilized in well-defined ways during eyeblink conditioning, conclusions regarding the underlying neural substrates of behavioral change after developmental ethanol exposure are greatly strengthened.