Prenatal Ethanol Exposure Up-Regulates the Cholesterol Transporters ATP-Binding Cassette A1 and G1 and Reduces Cholesterol Levels in the Developing Rat Brain

  1. Chunyan Zhou1,
  2. Jing Chen1,
  3. Xiaolu Zhang2,3,
  4. Lucio G. Costa1,4 and
  5. Marina Guizzetti1,2,3,*
  1. 1Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
  2. 2Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
  3. 3Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA
  4. 4Department of Neuroscience, University of Parma, Parma, Italy
  1. *Corresponding author: Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, Research and Development Section, 820 South Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60612, USA. Tel.: +1-312-569-8684; E-mail: mguizzetti{at}
  • Received October 15, 2013.
  • Revision requested November 7, 2013.
  • Revision received May 11, 2014.
  • Accepted June 17, 2014.

Aims: Cholesterol plays a pivotal role in many aspects of brain development; reduced cholesterol levels during brain development, as a consequence of genetic defects in cholesterol biosynthesis, leads to severe brain damage, including microcephaly and mental retardation, both of which are also hallmarks of the fetal alcohol syndrome. We had previously shown that ethanol up-regulates the levels of two cholesterol transporters, ABCA1 (ATP binding cassette-A1) and ABCG1, leading to increased cholesterol efflux and decreased cholesterol content in astrocytes in vitro. In the present study we investigated whether similar effects could be seen in vivo. Methods: Pregnant Sprague-Dawley rats were fed liquid diets containing 36% of the calories from ethanol from gestational day (GD) 6 to GD 21. A pair-fed control groups and an ad libitum control group were included in the study. ABCA1 and ABCG1 protein expression and cholesterol and phospholipid levels were measured in the neocortex of female and male fetuses at GD 21. Results: Body weights were decreased in female fetuses as a consequence of ethanol treatments. ABCA1 and ABCG1 protein levels were increased, and cholesterol levels were decreased, in the neocortex of ethanol-exposed female, but not male, fetuses. Levels of phospholipids were unchanged. Control female fetuses fed ad libitum displayed an up-regulation of ABCA1 and a decrease in cholesterol content compared with pair-fed controls, suggesting that a compensatory up-regulation of cholesterol levels may occur during food restriction. Conclusion: Maternal ethanol consumption may affect fetal brain development by increasing cholesterol transporters’ expression and reducing brain cholesterol levels.

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