Early life exposure to general anesthetics can have neurotoxic consequences. Evidence indicates that xenon, a rare noble gas with anesthetic properties, may lessen neuronal damage under certain conditions. However, its potential neuroprotective properties, when used alone or in combination with other anesthetics, remain largely unknown. While it is difficult to verify the adverse effects of long duration anesthetic exposure in infants and children, the utilization of relevant non-clinical models (i.e., human-derived neural stem cells) may serve as a “bridging” model for evaluating the vulnerability of the nervous system. Neural stem cells, purchased from PhoenixSongs Biologicals, Inc., were guided to differentiate into neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes, which were then exposed to propofol (50 μM) for 16 h in the presence or absence of xenon (33%). Differentiation into cells of the neural lineage was confirmed by labelling with cell-specific markers, β-tubulin for neurons, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) for astrocytes, and galactocerebroside (GALC) for oligodendrocytes after 5 days of differentiation. The presence and severity of neural damage induced by anesthetic exposures were assessed by several methods, including the TUNEL assay, and immuno-histochemical measurements. Our data demonstrate that prolonged exposure to propofol results in a significant increase in the number of TUNEL-positive cells, indicating increased neural apoptosis. No significant changes were detected in the number of GFAP-positive astrocytes or GALC-positive oligodendrocytes. However, the number of β-tubulin-positive neurons was substantially reduced in the propofol-exposed cultures. Co-administration of xenon effectively blocked the propofol-induced neuronal damage/loss. No significant effects were observed when xenon was administered alone. The data indicate that prolonged exposure to propofol during development produces elevated levels of neuronal apoptosis in a human neural stem cell-derived model. However, sub-clinical, non-anesthetic concentrations of xenon, when used in combination with propofol, can prevent or ameliorate the toxic effects associated with prolonged anesthetic exposure. This is important as a more complete understanding of the neurotoxic mechanisms associated with a variety of clinically relevant anesthetic combinations becomes available. Protective approaches are critical for developing sound guidance on best practices for the use of these agents in the pediatric setting.

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