1. Betamethasone has been used extensively to accelerate fetal lung maturation, yet little is known of its effects on neuronal morphogenesis in the developing fetus. Microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) are a diverse family of cytoskeletal proteins that are important for brain development and the maintenance of neuroarchitecture. 2. Vehicle (n=7) or betamethasone (10 μg h-1, n=7) was infused I.V. to fetal sheep over 48 h beginning at 0.87 of gestation (128 days of gestation), producing fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations resembling those to which the human fetus is exposed during antenatal glucocorticoid therapy. 3. Paraffin sections of the left hemisphere were stained with monoclonal antibodies against MAP1B and the MAP2 isoforms MAP2a,b,c and MAP2a,b. The level of the juvenile isoform MAP2c was determined by comparison of the two MAP2 immunostainings. 4. We were able to detect MAP1B and MAP2 immunoreactivity (IR) in the fetal sheep brain. MAP2c was the major MAP2, constituting 90.2% of the total MAP2. Betamethasone exposure diminished MAP1B IR in the frontal cortex and caudate putamen (P < 0.05) but not in the hippocampus. A decrease of MAP2 IR was found in the frontal cortex, hippocampus and caudate putamen (P < 0.05). Loss of MAP2 IR was mainly due to the loss of MAP2c IR. Haematoxylin-eosin staining did not demonstrate irreversible neuronal damage. 5. Regional cerebral blood flow determined using coloured microspheres was significantly decreased by 28% in the frontal cortex and by 36% in the caudate putamen but not in the hippocampus 24 h after the onset of betamethasone exposure (P < 0.05). The loss of MAP1B and MAP2a,b,c IR showed a significant correlation to the cerebral blood flow decrease only in the frontal cortex (P < 0.05). These data suggest that mechanisms other than metabolic insufficiency caused by the decreased cerebral blood flow may contribute to the loss of MAPs. 6. The results suggest that clinical doses of betamethasone may have acute effects on cytoskeletal proteins in the fetal brain.
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