BACKGROUND: Children born prematurely (<37 gestational weeks) are at risk for a variety of adverse medical events. They may experience ischemic and/or hemorrhagic events leading to negative neural sequelae. They are also exposed to repeated stressful experiences as part of life-saving care within the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). These experiences have been associated with methylation of SLC6A4, a gene which codes for serotonin transport proteins, and is associated with anxiety, depression, and increased incidence of autism spectrum disorders.The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of altered serotonin levels on behavioral and neuroanatomical outcomes in a neonatal rodent model with or without exposure to hypoxic-ischemic (HI) injury.
METHODS: Wistar rat pups were randomly assigned to either HI injury or sham groups. Pups within each group were treated with a chronic SSRI (Citalopram HBr) to simulate the effects of SLC6A4 methylation, or saline (NS). Subjects were assessed on behavioral tasks and neuropathologic indices.
RESULTS: HI injured subjects performed poorly on behavioral tasks. SSRI subjects did not display significantly greater anxiety. HI + SSRI subjects learned faster than HI+NS. Histologically, SSRI subjects had predominantly larger brain volumes than NS.
CONCLUSION: SSRI treated subjects without injury showed patterns of increased anxiety, consistent with theories of SLC6A4 methylation. The paradoxical trend to improved cognition in HI+SSRI subjects relative to HI alone, may reflect an unexpected SSRI neuroprotective effect in the presence of injury, and may be related to serotonin-induced neurogenesis.