Childhood lead poisoning persists as a major public health problem throughout the world, despite efforts to reduce lead hazards in the environment. Childhood exposure to low-level lead can permanently reduce intelligence, but the neurobiologic mechanism for this effect is unknown. The vulnerability of the developing brain to lead toxicity is maximal during the peak of synaptogenesis and activity-dependent cortical plasticity. This project utilizes a well-characterized animal model of cortical development, the rodent barrel field, to evaluate the effects of lead on the development and activity-dependent refinement of cortical circuitry. The barrel field of rodent somatosensory cortex contains a map of the whisker pad in which discrete clusters of neurons, called barrels, receive input from individual whiskers. This topographic map develops postnatally, and experimental manipulations such as whisker removal during a critical period in the first postnatal week modify the structure and topographic map of the barrel field. Preliminary studies have shown that neonatal lead exposure impairs the development of columnar processing units in immature barrel cortex. Lead also decreases the plastic response to follicle ablation in the barrel field model of activity-dependent cortical plasticity. Lead can directly alter glutamatergic neurotransmission and interfere with downstream signaling pathways that coordinate gene expression. We hypothesize that lead impairs the development of cortical columns by altering CREB phosphorylation and the expression of genes that are known to play a role in development and plasticity.
The aims are: 1) to determine whether lead-induced changes in barrel size are caused by reduction in barrel field axonal and dendritic arbors or neuronal number, 2) to determine whether the effects of lead can be blocked by the NMDA antagonist dextromethorphan, inhibition of Ras with FPT III, or inhibition of PDE4 with rolipram, 3) to determine whether postnatal lead exposure increases or decreases phosphorylation of CREB, ERK1/2 or CaMKIV in the developing barrel field, 4) to determine whether lead exposure alters basal or inducible expression of the transcription factor Egr1, the growth factor BDNF, orsynapsin I and II in the developing barrel field;5) to determine the effect of lead exposure on Egr1, BDNF, synapsin I and GAP-43 expression after neonatal follicle ablation.