Prenatal nicotine exposure reduces breathing response of newborns...

to equivalent of two packs-a-day prompts abnormal neonatal breathing

April 5, 2006 (see below for presentation details)*

SAN FRANCISCO (April 5, 2006) Exposure to nicotine the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarets a day produced complicated, abnormal breathing development during the first 18 days of newborn rats, University of Arizona researchers report.

Ralph Fregosi, presenting the results at three American Physiological Society sessions at Experimental Biology, said his team "found that the required increase in breathing in response to reduced oxygen supply was lower in nicotine-exposed animals compared to the controls over their first nine days. This suggests that prenatal nicotine exposure reduces the ability of a neonatal animal to respond to low blood oxygen, which can lead to prolonged and possibly lethal apneas."

Between nine and 18 days, the situation reversed, and nicotine-exposed rats' response was actually higher than controls, showing an overall complicated, abnormal breathing development over the18 days. Fregosi is presenting at an APS "featured topic" as well as at two poster sessions:


1. Featured topic: Developmental changes in respiratory control in neonatal rodents, session 730, Plasticity track sponsored by the APS Respiration Section, Tuesday, April 4 10:30 a.m. Moscone Mezzanine West #270.

12:15 p.m.: Ralph Fregosi: "Influence of prenatal nicotine exposure on development of ventilatory responses to hypoxia and asphyxia." Funding: American Heart Association.

2. 12:45 p.m.- 3 p.m. Tuesday April 4, APS Physiology Developmental changes in respiratory control in neonatal rodents session 751.2/board #C479, "Influence of prenatal nicotine exposure on development of ventilatory responses to hypoxia and asphyxia." Research was by Ralph F. Fregosi, Amanda Rose Brown, Yu-Hsien Huang, and Seres Costy-Bennett , Department of Physiology, University of Arizona; Fregosi also is with the Department of Neurobiology.

3. And simultaneously, in APS Physiology Control of breathing: development session 752.1/board #C483, "Prenatal nicotine exposure does not alter the central ventilatory responsse to serotonin receptor agonists," research by Z. Luo, Costy-Bennett and Fregosi.

Cause of apneas still unknown, but ability to restart breathing remains key

Fregosi said his laboratory wants to better understand how smoking during pregnancy disturbs breathing in infants because of increased rates of asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), obstructive sleep apnea and impaired arousal responses during sleep. "Our laboratory is particularly interested in the strong association between maternal smoking on the one hand, and the increased incidence of infantile SIDS and obstructive sleep apnea on the other."

In the current study the team studied how prenatal nicotine exposure affected neonate's ability to respond to decreased levels of blood oxygen, and/or low oxygen combined with elevated carbon dioxide. "This is important when the neonate has an 'apnea,' or cessation of breathing, when they are sleeping, because under these conditions the oxygen can be reduced dramatically. Although we still don't understand the cause of the apneas, we know they are frequent, especially in the early neonatal period.

"This is important physiologically, because a reduced ability to respond to low oxygen and/or high carbon dioxide diminishes the ability of the infant to reinitiate breathing and break the apnea. If the apnea becomes prolonged, the oxygen levels in the blood will drop dramatically leading to cardiovascular arrest and death."

Study used pump implant to simulate prenatal nicotine exposure

The current study exposed animals to nicotine by implanting a small pump loaded with nicotine into pregnant rats, so the neonates were exposed to the nicotine in utero. This mimics the situation observed in a smoking pregnant woman. The dose of nicotine was designed to be equivalent to what the developing fetus would be exposed to if their mother smoked two packs of cigarets a day.

Various levels of oxygen reduction were tested, from 16% to 10% of air (normal air is 21% O2), as well as a 12% oxygen/5% CO2 level.

Developmental switch parallels neurophysiological findings

Fregosi noted that there is "mounting evidence that neurons responsible for controlling their respiratory and cardiovascular systems show a variety of abnormal anatomic and physiologic changes in neonatal animals exposed to nicotine before birth, and the developmental switch between nine and 12 days is consistent with a recent report in the Journal of Applied Physiology on a major readjustment of brainstem neurotransmitter receptor densities near day 12."

Editor's Note: For further information or to schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact Mayer Resnick at the APS newsroom @ 415.905.1024 (March 31-April 5); or 301.332.4402 (cell) or 301.634.7209 (office),; or Christine Guilfoy at 978.290.2400 (cell) or 301.634.7253 (office).


The American Physiological Society was founded in 1887 to foster basic and applied bioscience. The Bethesda, Maryland-based society has more than 10,500 members and publishes 14 peer-reviewed journals containing almost 4,000 articles annually.

APS provides a wide range of research, educational and career support and programming to further the contributions of physiology to understanding the mechanisms of diseased and healthy states. In May 2004, APS received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

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Experimental Biology is an annual scientific meeting convened by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, including the American Physiological Society (APS) and other biomedical societies. The meeting features "nominated" lectures, symposia, research presentations, awards, a job placement center, and an exhibit of scientific equipment, supplies, and publications. This year's participating Societies are APS, American Association of Anatomists, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Society for Investigative Pathology, American Society for Nutritional Sciences, and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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