Neurotoxicity induced by early developmental exposure to volatile anesthetics is a characteristic of organisms across a wide range of species, extending from the nematode C. elegans to mammals. Prevention of anesthetic-induced neurotoxicity (AIN) will rely upon an understanding of its underlying mechanisms. However, no forward genetic screens have been undertaken to identify the critical pathways affected in AIN. By characterizing such pathways, we may identify mechanisms to eliminate isoflurane induced AIN in mammals.


Chemotaxis in adult C. elegans after larval exposure to isoflurane was used to measure AIN. We initially compared changes in chemotaxis indices between classical mutants known to affect nervous system development adding mutants in response to data. Activation of specific genes was visualized using fluorescent markers. Animals were then treated with rapamycin or preconditioned with isoflurane to test effects on AIN.


Forty-four mutations, as well as pharmacologic manipulations, identified two pathways, highly conserved from invertebrates to humans, that regulate AIN in C. elegans. Activation of one stress-protective pathway (DAF-2 dependent) eliminates AIN, while activation of a second stress-responsive pathway (endoplasmic reticulum (ER) associated stress) causes AIN. Pharmacologic inhibition of the mechanistic Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) blocks ER-stress and AIN. Preconditioning with isoflurane prior to larval exposure also inhibited AIN.


Our data are best explained by a model in which isoflurane acutely inhibits mitochondrial function causing activation of responses that ultimately lead to ER-stress. The neurotoxic effect of isoflurane can be completely prevented by manipulations at multiple points in the pathways that control this response. Endogenous signaling pathways can be recruited to protect organisms from the neurotoxic effects of isoflurane.