Although propofol is a widely used intravenous general anaesthetic, many studies report its toxic potential, particularly on the developing central nervous system. We investigated its action on hypoglossal motoneurons (HMs) that control two critical functions in neonates, namely tongue muscle activity and airway patency. Thus, clinically relevant concentrations of propofol (1 and 5μM) were applied (4h) to neonatal rat brainstem slices to evaluate the expression of apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) as biomarker of toxicity. This anaesthetic strongly increased AIF in the cytoplasm and the nucleus, without early loss of HMs. Electrophysiological recordings from HMs showed that propofol (5μM) enhanced GABA- and glycine-evoked current amplitude and lengthened GABAergic current decay time. Propofol also depressed NMDA receptor-mediated responses without affecting AMPA receptors. Since GABA and glycine depolarize neonatal HMs, we propose that the damaging action by propofol on these motoneurons might arise from the facilitated action of these transmitters with subsequent cytoplasmic Ca2+ overload. This phenomenon, in turn, may trigger cell death mechanisms manifested as increased expression of AIF and its translocation into the nucleus. Since propofol is also employed for induction and maintenance of paediatric surgery, caution is needed because its potential neurotoxicity might negatively impact neurodevelopment.

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