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Foundational Research

Abuse pattern of gestational toluene exposure and early postnatal development in rats

Scott E BowenJeffery C BatisMichael H MohammadiJohn H Hannigan

First published: Jan-Feb 27, 2005         DOI: 10.1016/


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Inhalant abuse in the United States trails only alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine abuse. Toluene, found in glues and cleaners, is among the most commonly abused inhalants. While teratogenicity due to occupational exposure to organic solvents (i.e., relatively long-term exposure to lower concentrations) has been studied, the teratogenic potential of organic solvent abuse (i.e., brief inhalation exposures to very high concentrations) has not been thoroughly examined. In a preclinical model of abuse patterns of fetal solvent exposure, timed-pregnant rats were exposed to 8000 parts per million (ppm) or 12,000 ppm of toluene, or to air (0 ppm), for 15 min twice daily from gestation day 8 (GD8) through GD20. After parturition, pups were tested from postnatal day 4 (PN4) to PN21 in a developmental test battery, including measures of growth (i.e., body weight), maturational milestones (i.e., pinnae unfolding, incisor eruption and eye-opening) and biobehavioral development (e.g., negative geotaxis, surface righting and grip strength). Pups exposed in utero to 12,000 ppm toluene weighed significantly less than the control pups at all ages before PN16. There were significant toluene-induced increases in an index of poor perinatal outcome (i.e., a combination of malformations, “runting” and neonatal death) and deficits in negative geotaxis. There were no significant delays in reaching maturational milestones. The results demonstrate that brief, repeated prenatal exposure to high concentrations of toluene can cause growth restriction, malformation, and impairments of biobehavioral development in rats. A comparison of the present outcomes to previous studies of occupational exposure patterns suggests that for a given daily “dose” of toluene, a binge pattern of exposure may pose a greater risk for fetal development. Since the pattern of exposure in this experiment models binge exposure in human solvent abuse, the results imply that the abuse of inhaled organic solvents, such as toluene, can cause similar teratogenic outcomes in humans.

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