AIM: Animal studies suggest that neuronal cell death often results from anesthetic administration during synaptogenesis. Volatile anesthetics are strongly involved in triggering neuronal apoptosis, whereas other inhalational agents (xenon) demonstrate protective effects. Nitrous oxide (N2O) has modest pro-apoptotic effects on its own and potent, synergistic toxic effects when combined with volatile agents. Recent findings suggest that, during periods of rapid brain development, the enhanced neurodegeneration triggered by anesthetic drugs may be caused by a compensatory increase in intracellular free calcium, a potent activator of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). Anesthesia-induced neuro-apoptosis is also activated via the intrinsic and the extrinsic apoptotic pathways because both pathways involve p53, a key regulatory gene. The molecular events related to neuronal cell apoptosis are not completely understood. To gain further insight into the events underlying neuro-apoptosis, we analyzed the transcriptional consequences of N2O exposure on nNOS, iNOS and p53 mRNA levels. METHODS: The study used 2 groups of postnatal day seven Sprague/Dawley rats (N=6 each) that were exposed for 120 minutes to air (75% N2, 25% O2) or N2O (75% N2O, 25% O2; this N2O concentration is commonly used to induce anesthesia and has been demonstrated to trigger neurodegeneration in postnatal day seven rats). Total RNA was isolated from each brain and expression analyses on iNOS and nNOS transcripts were performed using relative Real-Time C-reactive protein PCR (using G3PDH as a housekeeping gene). A semi-quantitative RT-PCR analysis was performed on the p53 transcript (using Ciclophylin A as a housekeeping gene). RESULTS: Statistical analysis (REST 2005) revealed a significant, 11-fold up-regulation (P=0.026) of the nNOS transcript but no significant changes in iNOS transcription. The p53 mRNA was up-regulated almost 2-fold (P=0.0002; Student's t-Test; GraphPad Prism 4.00) in N2O-treated samples relative to room-air samples. CONCLUSION: Our preliminary data show that N2O induced a selective increase in nNOS and p53 transcription. These new findings provide evidence of pro-apoptotic action by N2O and may shed new insight on its toxic effects; however, further investigations are necessary.