There is a large body of preclinical literature suggesting that exposure to general anesthetic agents during early life may have harmful effects on brain development. Patients in intensive care settings are often treated for prolonged periods with sedative medications, many of which have mechanisms of action that are similar to general anesthetics. Using in vivo studies of the mouse hippocampus and an in vitro rat cortical neuron model we asked whether there is evidence that repeated, long duration exposure to midazolam, a commonly used sedative in pediatric intensive care practice, has the potential to cause lasting harm to the developing brain. We found that mice that underwent midazolam sedation in early postnatal life exhibited deficits in the performance on Y-maze and fear-conditioning testing at young adult ages. Labeling with a nucleoside analog revealed a reduction in the rate of adult neurogenesis in the hippocampal dentate gyrus, a brain region that has been shown to be vulnerable to developmental anesthetic neurotoxicity. In addition, using immunohistochemistry for synaptic markers we found that the number of presynaptic terminals in the dentate gyrus was reduced, while the number of excitatory postsynaptic terminals was increased. These findings were replicated in a midazolam sedation exposure model in neurons in culture. We conclude that repeated, long duration exposure to midazolam during early development has the potential to result in persistent alterations in the structure and function of the brain.
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