News Release 

Fetal nicotine exposure harms breathing in infants

Neurons controlling the tongue could play a role in sudden infant death syndrome

Society for Neuroscience


IMAGE: Whole muscle electromyographic activity in control and nicotine-exposed rats. view more 

Credit: Wollman et al., eNeuro 2019

Exposure to nicotine during development inhibits the function of neurons controlling the tongue, according to research in newborn rats recently published in eNeuro. This impairment may be a factor in sudden infant death syndrome in humans.

The hypoglossal nerve activates the muscles of the tongue. Wollman et al. exposed rats to nicotine in the womb and during the first few days of life. The team then measured the electrical activity of hypoglossal neurons during normal breathing and when breathing is stressed.

Normally, when breathing is obstructed, such as a blocking an animal's nostrils, a flood of excitatory neurotransmitters activate the hypoglossal neurons to move the tongue and open the airway. At rest, hypoglossal neurons in the rats exposed to nicotine behaved normally. However, during the breathing stressor test, the neurons from nicotine-exposed rats did not respond as robustly as those in the control rats, leading to difficulty breathing.

The researchers posit fetal and early life nicotine exposure in human babies could weaken their respiratory reflexes, increasing their susceptibility to sudden infant death syndrome in the face of a breathing obstruction.


Manuscript title: Developmental Nicotine Exposure Alters Synaptic Input to Hypoglossal Motoneurons, and is Associated With Altered Function of Upper Airway Muscles

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About eNeuro

eNeuro is an online, open-access journal published by the Society for Neuroscience. Established in 2014, eNeuro publishes a wide variety of content, including research articles, short reports, reviews, commentaries and opinions.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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