Exposure to commonly used anesthetics is associated with widespread neuroapoptosis in neonatal animals. Vulnerability of developing hippocampal dentate gyrus granule cells to anesthetic neurotoxicity peaks approximately 2 weeks after cell birth, as measured by bromodeoxyuridine birth dating, regardless of the age of the animal. The present study examined whether the vulnerable window can be further characterized by utilizing a transgenic approach. Proopiomelanocortin enhanced green fluorescent protein (POMC-EGFP) mice (postnatal day 21) were exposed to 3% sevoflurane for 6 h. Following exposure, cleaved caspase 3, expression of EGFP and differential maturational markers were quantified and compared with unanesthetized littermates. Electrophysiological properties of EGFP+ and EGFP cells in the subgranular zone and the inner half of the granule cell layer were recorded by whole-cell patch-clamp. We found that sevoflurane significantly increased apoptosis of POMC-EGFP+ granule cells that accounted for approximate 1/3 of all apoptotic cells in dentate gyrus. Apoptotic EGFP granule cells more frequently expressed the immature neuronal marker calretinin (75.4% vs 45.0%, P < 0.001) and less frequently the late progenitor marker NeuroD1 (21.9% vs 87.9%, P < 0.001) than EGFP+ granule cells. Although EGFP granule cells were more mature in immunostaining than EGFP+ granule cells, their electrophysiological properties partially overlapped in terms of input resistance, resting membrane potential and action potential amplitude. Our results revealed the POMC stage, when GABA acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, only partly captures susceptibility to anesthetic neurotoxicity, suggesting the vulnerable window of anesthesia-induced neuroapoptosis extends from the end of POMC+ stage to the post-POMC+ stage when depolarizing glutamatergic inputs emerge.

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