Apoptosis is triggered in the developing mammalian brain by sedative, anesthetic or antiepileptic drugs during late gestation and early life. Whether human children are vulnerable to this toxicity mechanism remains unknown, as there are no imaging techniques to capture it. Apoptosis is characterized by distinct structural features, which affect the way damaged tissue scatters ultrasound compared to healthy tissue. We evaluated whether apoptosis, triggered by the anesthetic sevoflurane in the brains of neonatal rhesus macaques, can be detected using quantitative ultrasound (QUS). Neonatal (n = 15) rhesus macaques underwent 5 h of sevoflurane anesthesia. QUS images were obtained through the sagittal suture at 0.5 and 6 h. Brains were collected at 8 h and examined immunohistochemically to analyze apoptotic neuronal and oligodendroglial death. Significant apoptosis was detected in white and gray matter throughout the brain, including the thalamus. We measured a change in the effective scatterer size (ESS), a QUS biomarker derived from ultrasound echo signals obtained with clinical scanners, after sevoflurane-anesthesia in the thalamus. Although initial inclusion of all measurements did not reveal a significant correlation, when outliers were excluded, the change in the ESS between the pre- and post-anesthesia measurements correlated strongly and proportionally with the severity of apoptotic death. We report for the first time in vivo changes in QUS parameters, which may reflect severity of apoptosis in the brains of infant nonhuman primates. These findings suggest that QUS may enable in vivo studies of apoptosis in the brains of human infants following exposure to anesthetics, antiepileptics and other brain injury mechanisms.

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