Perinatal asphyxia (PA) is a relevant cause of death at the time of labour, and when survival is stabilised, associated with short- and long-term developmental disabilities, requiring inordinate care by health systems and families. Its prevalence is high (1 to 10/1000 live births) worldwide. At present, there are few therapeutic options, apart from hypothermia, that regrettably provides only limited protection if applied shortly after the insult.
PA implies a primary and a secondary insult. The primary insult relates to the lack of oxygen, and the secondary one to the oxidative stress triggered by re-oxygenation, formation of reactive oxygen (ROS) and reactive nitrogen (RNS) species, and overactivation of glutamate receptors and mitochondrial deficiencies. PA induces overactivation of a number of sentinel proteins, including hypoxia-induced factor-1Î± (HIF-1Î±) and the genome-protecting poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase-1 (PARP-1). Upon activation, PARP-1 consumes high amounts of ATP at a time when this metabolite is scarce, worsening in turn the energy crisis elicited by asphyxia. The energy crisis also impairs ATP-dependent transport, including glutamate re-uptake by astroglia. Nicotinamide, a PARP-1 inhibitor, protects against the metabolic cascade elicited by the primary stage, avoiding NAD+ exhaustion and the energetic crisis. Upon re-oxygenation, however, oxidative stress leads to nuclear translocation of the NF-ÎºB subunit p65, overexpression of the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1Î² and TNF-Î±, and glutamate-excitotoxicity, due to impairment of glial-glutamate transport, extracellular glutamate overflow, and overactivation of NMDA receptors, mainly of the extrasynaptic type. This leads to calcium influx, mitochondrial impairment, and inactivation of antioxidant enzymes, increasing further the activity of pro-oxidant enzymes, thereby making the surviving neonate vulnerable to recurrent metabolic insults whenever oxidative stress is involved. Here, we discuss evidence showing that (i) inhibition of PARP-1 overactivation by nicotinamide and (ii) inhibition of extrasynaptic NMDA receptor overactivation by memantine can prevent the short- and long-term consequences of PA. These hypotheses have been evaluated in a rat preclinical model of PA, aiming to identify the metabolic cascades responsible for the long-term consequences induced by the insult, also assessing postnatal vulnerability to recurrent oxidative insults. Thus, we present and discuss evidence demonstrating that PA induces long-term changes in metabolic pathways related to energy and oxidative stress, priming vulnerability of cells with both the neuronal and the glial phenotype. The effects induced by PA are region dependent, the substantia nigra being particularly prone to cell death. The issue of short- and long-term consequences of PA provides a framework for addressing a fundamental issue referred to plasticity of the CNS, since the perinatal insult triggers a domino-like sequence of events making the developing individual vulnerable to recurrent adverse conditions, decreasing his/her coping repertoire because of a relevant insult occurring at birth.