Low-level lead (Pb) exposure is a risk factor for learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other neurological dysfunction. It is not known how Pb produces these behavioral deficits, but low-level exposure during development is associated with auditory temporal processing deficits in an avian model, while hearing thresholds remain normal. Similar auditory processing deficits are found in children with learning disabilities and ADHD. To identify cellular changes underlying this functional deficit, Pb-induced alterations of neurons and glia within the mammalian auditory brainstem nuclei were quantified in control and Pb-exposed mice at postnatal day 21 by using immunohistochemistry, Western blotting, and 2D gel electrophoresis. Pb-treated mice were exposed to either 0.1 mM (low) or 2 mM (high) Pb acetate throughout gestation and through 21 days postnatally. Pb exposure results in little change in glial proteins such as glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), myelin basic protein (MBP), or F4/80 as determined by Western blot analysis and immunohistochemistry. In contrast, Pb exposure alters neuronal structural proteins by inducing increased phosphorylation of both the medium (NFM) and high-weight (NFH) forms of neurofilament within auditory brainstem nuclei. Axons immunolabeled for neurofilament protein show neuritic beading following Pb exposure both in vivo and in vitro, suggesting that Pb exposure also impairs axonal transport. Functional assessment shows no significant loss of peripheral function, but does reveal impairments in brainstem conduction time and temporal processing within the brainstem. These results provide evidence that Pb exposure during development alters axonal structure and function within brainstem auditory nuclei.
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