Transient Hypoxemia Disrupts Anatomical and Functional Maturation of Preterm Fetal Ovine CA1 Pyramidal Neurons

Evelyn McClendon, Kang Wang, Kiera Degener-O'Brien, Matthew W. Hagen, Xi Gong, Thuan Nguyen, Wendy W. Wu, James Maylie, Stephen A. Back

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Children who survive premature birth often exhibit reductions in hippocampal volumes and deficits in working memory. However, it is unclear whether synaptic plasticity and cellular mechanisms of learning and memory can be elicited or disrupted in the preterm fetal hippocampus. CA1 hippocampal neurons were exposed to two common insults to preterm brain: transient hypoxia-ischemia (HI) and hypoxia (Hx). We used a preterm fetal sheep model using both sexes in twin 0.65 gestation fetuses that reproduces the spectrum of injury and abnormal growth in preterm infants. Using Cavalieri measurements, hippocampal volumes were reduced in both Hx and HI fetuses compared with controls. This volume loss was not the result of neuronal cell death. Instead, morphometrics revealed alterations in both basal and apical dendritic arborization that were significantly associated with the level of systemic hypoxemia and metabolic stress regardless of etiology. Anatomical alterations of CA1 neurons were accompanied by reductions in probability of presynaptic glutamate release, long-term synaptic plasticity and intrinsic excitability. The reduction in intrinsic excitability was in part due to increased activity of the channels underlying the fast and slow component of the afterhyperpolarization in Hx and HI. Our studies suggest that even a single brief episode of hypoxemia can markedly disrupt hippocampal maturation. Hypoxemia may contribute to long-term working memory disturbances in preterm survivors by disrupting neuronal maturation with resultant functional disturbances in hippocampal action potential throughput. Strategies directed at limiting the duration or severity of hypoxemia during brain development may mitigate disturbances in hippocampal maturation.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Premature infants commonly sustain hypoxia-ischemia, which results in reduced hippocampal growth and life-long disturbances in learning and memory. We demonstrate that the circuitry related to synaptic plasticity and cellular mechanisms of learning and memory (LTP) are already functional in the fetal hippocampus. Unlike adults, the fetal hippocampus is surprisingly resistant to cell death from hypoxia-ischemia. However, the hippocampus sustains robust structural and functional disturbances in the dendritic maturation of CA1 neurons that are significantly associated with the magnitude of a brief hypoxic stress. Since transient hypoxic episodes occur commonly in preterm survivors, our findings suggest that the learning problems that ensue may be related to the unique susceptibility of the hippocampus to brief episodes of hypoxemia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7853-7871
Number of pages19
JournalThe Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
Issue number40
StatePublished - Oct 2 2019


  • LTP
  • dendritic morphology
  • developmental neuroanatomy
  • electrophysiology
  • hippocampus
  • synaptic plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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