Programming the brain: Towards intervention strategies

Publication Type:



Claessens, S.E.


LACDR, Medical Pharmacology, Leiden University, Volume PhD, Leiden (2012)




Behaviour; Brain; Cognition; Development; Glucocorticoids; Proliferation; Stress


Synthetic glucocorticoids such as dexamethasone are frequently used to enhance pulmonary development in preterm ventilator-dependent infants. In contrast to the short-term benefit on survival and lung maturation, early glucocorticoid exposure has been shown to adversely affect neurodevelopmental processes. Both human and animal studies have reported acute and long-lasting impairments, including shortening of the lifespan in rodents. Therefore, the objective of the studies described in this thesis was to investigate, using an animal model: 1) the short- and long-term consequences of neonatal dexamethasone treatment and 2) the possibility to prevent these effects using pharmacological and behavioural intervention strategies. We reported that systemic dexamethasone treatment acutely affects brain development by suppressing cell proliferation and glial activity. These acute effects on the brain can be partially prevented by central glucocorticoid receptor antagonist pre-treatment, which might serve as a protective strategy against the adverse effects of dexamethasone treatment on the developing brain. Although neonatal dexamethasone exposure clearly affects the developmental trajectory, we did not observe the frequently described detrimental long-lasting consequences of this treatment. We showed that daily handling of the neonate, which was an inevitable component of our experimental design and leads to enhanced levels of maternal care towards the offspring, may compensate for some of the adverse effects of dexamethasone treatment. We conclude that the impact of neonatal glucocorticoid exposure highly depends on interactions with other components of the early environment and is therefore susceptible to pharmacological and behavioural intervention strategies.