Exposure to alcohol in utero is a well known cause of mental retardation in humans. Using experimental models of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, it has been demonstrated that cortical pyramidal neurons and their projections are profoundly and permanently impaired. Yet, how the functional features of these cells are modified and how such modifications impact cognitive processes is still unknown. To address this, we studied the intrinsic electrophysiological properties of pyramidal neurons in young adult rats (P30-P60) exposed to ethanol inhalation during the first week of postnatal life (P2-P6). Dual whole-cell recordings from the soma and distal apical dendrites were performed and, following the injection of depolarizing current into the dendrites, layer 5 neurons from ethanol-treated (Et) animals displayed a lower number and a shorter duration of dendritic spikes, attributable to a downregulation of calcium electrogenesis. As a consequence, the mean number of action potentials recorded at the soma after dendritic current injection was also lower in Et animals. No significant differences between Et and controls were observed in the firing pattern elicited in layer 5 neurons by steps of depolarizing somatic current, even though the firing rate was significantly lower in Et animals. The firing pattern and the firing rate of layer 2/3 neurons were not affected by alcohol exposure.
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