Exposure to ethanol during the prenatal period contributes to increased alcohol consumption and preference in rodents and increased risk for alcoholism in humans. With studies in adult animals showing the orexigenic peptides, enkephalin (ENK), galanin (GAL) and orexin (OX), to stimulate ethanol consumption, the question addressed here is whether prenatal ethanol alters the development in utero of specific neurons that express these peptides.

With reports describing suppressive effects of high doses of ethanol, we examined the offspring of dams gavaged from embryonic day 9 to parturition with a control solution or lower ethanol doses, 1 and 3 g/kg/day, known to promote ethanol consumption in the offspring.

To understand underlying mechanisms, measurements were taken in postnatal offspring of the expression of ENK in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and nucleus accumbens (NAc), GAL in the PVN, and OX in the perifornical lateral hypothalamus (PFLH) using real-time qPCR and ISH, and also of the cell proliferation marker, 5-bromo-2-deoxyuridine (BrdU), and its double-labeling with either NeuN, a marker of mature neurons, or the peptides.

On postnatal day 15 (P15), after two weeks without ethanol, the offspring showed increased expression of ENK in the PVN and NAc core but not shell, GAL in the PVN, and OX in the PFLH.

In these same areas, prenatal ethanol compared to control increased the density at birth (P0) of neurons expressing these peptides and at P0 and P15 of neurons double-labeling BrdU and NeuN, indicating increased neurogenesis.

These BrdU-positive neurons were found to express ENK, GAL and OX, indicating that prenatal ethanol promotes neurogenesis in these specific peptide systems. There were no changes in gliogenesis or apoptosis.

This increase in neurogenesis and density of peptide-expressing neurons suggests the involvement of these hypothalamic and accumbal peptide systems in mediating the increased alcohol consumption observed in prenatal ethanol-exposed offspring.