Prior to sensory experience spontaneous activity appears to play a fundamental role in the correct formation of prominent functional features of different cortical regions. The use of anaesthesia during pregnancy such as ketamine is largely considered to negatively affect neuronal development by interfering with synaptic transmission. Interestingly, the characteristics of spontaneous activity as well as the acute functional effects of maternal anaesthesia remain largely untested in the embryonic cortex in vivo. In the present work, we performed in vivo imaging of spontaneous calcium activity and cell motility in the marginal zone of the cortex of E14-15 embryos connected to the mother. We made use of a preparation where the blood circulation from the mother through the umbilical cord is preserved and fluctuations in intracellular calcium in the embryonic frontal cortex are acquired using two-photon imaging. We found that spontaneous transients were either sporadic or correlated in clusters of neuronal ensembles at this age. These events were not sensitive to maternal isoflurane anaesthesia but were strongly inhibited by acute in situ or maternal application of low concentration of the anaesthetic ketamine (a non-competitive antagonist of NMDA receptors). Moreover, simultaneous imaging of cell motility revealed a correlated strong sensitivity to ketamine. These results show that anaesthetic compounds can differ significantly in their impact on spontaneous early cortical activity as well as motility of cells in the marginal zone. The effects found in this study may be relevant in the etiology of heightened vulnerability to cerebral dysfunction associated with the use of ketamine during pregnancy.
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