The factors determining peak susceptibility of the developing brain to anaesthetics are unclear. It is unknown why postnatal day 7 (P7) male rats are more vulnerable to anaesthesia-induced memory deficits than littermate females. Given the precocious development of certain regions in the female brain during the neonatal critical period, we hypothesised that females are susceptible to anaesthetic brain injury at an earlier time point than previously tested.
Female rats were exposed to isoflurane (Iso) 1 minimum alveolar concentration or sham anaesthesia at P4 or P7. Starting at P35, rats underwent a series of behavioural tasks to test their spatial and recognition memory. Cell death immediately after anaesthesia was quantified by Fluoro-Jade C staining in select brain regions, and developmental expression of the chloride transporters KCC2 and NKCC1 was analysed by immunoblotting in male and female rats at P4 and P7.
Female rats exposed to Iso at P4 displayed impaired spatial, object-place, -context, and social recognition memory, and increased cell death in the hippocampus and laterodorsal thalamus. Female rats exposed at P7 exhibited only decreased performance in object-context compared with control. The ratio of NKCC1/KCC2 expression in cerebral cortex was higher in P4 females than in P7 females, and similar to that in P7 males.
Female rats exposed to Iso at P4 are sensitive to anaesthetic injury historically observed in P7 males. This is consistent with a comparably immature developmental state in P4 females and P7 males. The window of anaesthetic vulnerability correlates with sex-specific cortical expression of chloride transporters NKCC1 and KCC2. These findings suggest that both sex and developmental age play important roles in determining the outcome after early anaesthesia exposure.