Behavioral changes and dendritic remodeling of hippocampal neurons in adolescent alcohol-treated rats
Objective: Earlier, we and others have reported that alcohol exposure in adolescent rat impaired performance of a spatial memory task in the Morris water maze. The goal of the present study was to investigate the effects of acute adolescent alcohol treatment on the hippocampus-dependent (contextual fear conditioning) and hippocampus-independent (cued fear) memories. The study also looked at the structural changes in anterior CA1 hippocampal neurons in adolescent alcohol-treated rats. Methods: Adolescent female rats were administered with a single dose of alcohol (1.0, 1.5, or 2.0 g/kg) or vehicle either before training (pre-training) or after training (pre-testing). Experimental and control rats were trained in the fear conditioning paradigm, and 24 h later tested for both contextual fear conditioning as well as cued fear memory. Separate groups of rats were treated with either alcohol (2 g/kg) or vehicle and sacrificed 24 h later. Their brains were harvested and processed for rapid Golgi staining. Randomly selected CA1 pyramidal neurons were analyzed for dendritic branching and dendritic spine density. Results: Pre-training alcohol dose-dependently attenuated acquisition of hippocampus-dependent contextual fear conditioning but had no effect on the acquisition of amygdala-associated cued fear. When administered following training (pre-testing), alcohol did not alter either contextual conditioning or cued fear memory. Golgi stained CA1 pyramidal neurons in alcohol treated female rats had reduced basilar tree branching and less complex dendritic arborization. Conclusion: Alcohol specifically impaired hippocampal learning in adolescent rats but not amygdala-associated cued fear memory. Compared to vehicle-treated rats, CA1 hippocampal pyramidal neurons in alcohol-treated rats had less complex dendritic morphology. Together, these data suggest that adolescent alcohol exposure produces changes in the neuronal organization of the hippocampus, and these changes may be related to impairments in hippocampus-dependent memory formation.