Background: Prolonged exposure to general anesthetics during development is known to cause neurobehavioral abnormalities, but the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved are unclear. Microglia are the resident immune cells in the central nervous system and play essential roles in normal brain development.

Materials and methods: In the study, postnatal day 7 (P7) C57BL/6 mice were randomly assigned to two groups. In the sevoflurane (SEVO), mice were exposed to 2.5% sevoflurane for 4 h. In the control group, mice were exposed to carrier gas (30% O2/70% N2) for 4 h. Fixed brain slices from P14 to P21 mice were immunolabeled for ionized calcium-binding adapter molecule 1 (IBA-1) to visualize microglia. The morphological analysis of microglia in the somatosensory cortex was performed using ImageJ and Imaris software. Serial block face scanning electron microscopy (SBF-SEM) was performed to assess the ultrastructure of the microglia and the contacts between microglia and synapse in P14 and P21 mice. The confocal imaging of brain slices was performed to assess microglia surveillance in resting and activated states in P14 and P21 mice. Behavioral tests were used to assess the effect of microglia depletion and repopulation on neurobehavioral abnormalities caused by sevoflurane exposure.

Results: The prolonged exposure of neonatal mice to sevoflurane induced microglia hyper-ramification with an increase in total branch length, arborization area, and branch complexity 14 days after exposure. Prolonged neonatal sevoflurane exposure reduced contacts between microglia and synapses, without affecting the surveillance of microglia in the resting state or responding to laser-induced focal brain injury. These neonatal changes in microglia were associated with anxiety-like behaviors in adult mice. Furthermore, microglial depletion before sevoflurane exposure and subsequent repopulation in the neonatal brain mitigated anxiety-like behaviors caused by sevoflurane exposure.

Conclusion: Our experiments indicate that general anesthetics may harm the developing brain, and microglia may be an essential target of general anesthetic-related developmental neurotoxicity.

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Hong Li et al.
Frontiers in Neurology March 2023