5-HT release in nucleus accumbens rescues social deficits in mouse autism model

Abstract

Dysfunction in prosocial interactions is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorder. However, the neural mechanisms that underlie sociability are poorly understood, limiting the rational development of therapies to treat social deficits. Here we show in mice that bidirectional modulation of the release of serotonin (5-HT) from dorsal raphe neurons in the nucleus accumbens bidirectionally modifies sociability. In a mouse model of a common genetic cause of autism spectrum disorder—a copy number variation on chromosome 16p11.2—genetic deletion of the syntenic region from 5-HT neurons induces deficits in social behaviour and decreases dorsal raphe 5-HT neuronal activity. These sociability deficits can be rescued by optogenetic activation of dorsal raphe 5-HT neurons, an effect requiring and mimicked by activation of 5-HT1b receptors in the nucleus accumbens. These results demonstrate an unexpected role for 5-HT action in the nucleus accumbens in social behaviours, and suggest that targeting this mechanism may prove therapeutically beneficial.

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Fig. 1: Activation of DR neurons or their NAc projections increases sociability.
Fig. 2: Bidirectional modulation of DR 5-HT neuron activity modifies sociability.
Fig. 3: 16p11.2 deletion in DR and 5-HT neurons decreases sociability.
Fig. 4: 16p11.2 deletion in DR 5-HT neurons decreases their activity.
Fig. 5: Rescue of social deficits in 16p11.2 deletion mice by 5-HT activity in the NAc.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (award 305112 to R.C.M.) and NIMH (F32 MH103949 to J.J.W.).

Reviewer information

Nature thanks G. Feng, M. Lobo and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Authors

Contributions

J.J.W. performed the majority of experiments. D.J.C. performed the electrophysiology experiments. B.D.H. performed the fibre photometry experiments. G.A.B.-D., A.S. and L.W.H. assisted in surgeries and behavioural assays. J.J.W. and R.C.M. designed the experiments, interpreted results and wrote the paper, which was edited by all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert C. Malenka.

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Competing interests

R.C.M. and K.D. are cofounders and on the scientific advisory board of Circuit Therapeutics, Inc.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Activation of DR neurons or their NAc projections increases sociability, and bidirectional modulation of DR 5-HT neuron activity bidirectionally modifies sociability.

a, b, Quantification of chamber time (a: eYFP, F6,45 = 0.6823, P = 0.6647, n = 6; ChR2, F6,72 = 17.21, P < 0.01; n = 9) and proximity time (b: eYFP, F3,30 = 0.7517, P = 0.5300, n = 6; ChR2, F3,48 = 32.96, P < 0.01, n = 9) in the three-chamber assay. c, Quantification of centre time in the locomotion assay (c: F5,65 = 1.263, P = 0.2908, n = 6–9). d, e, Quantification of chamber time (d: eYFP, F6,54 = 0.2602, P = 0.9529, n = 7; ChR2, F6,72 = 19.36, P < 0.01, n = 9) and proximity time (e: eYFP, F3,36 = 0.3456, P = 0.7925, n = 7; ChR2, F3,48 = 26.44, P < 0.01, n = 9) in the three-chamber assay. f, Quantification of centre time in the locomotion assay (F5,40 = 0.7786, P = 0.5710, n = 5). g, h, Quantification of chamber time (g: eYFP, F6,54 = 0.7293, P = 0.6280, n = 7; ChR2, F6,72 = 3.812, P < 0.05, n = 9) and proximity time (h: eYFP, F3,36 = 0.9256, P = 0.4383, n = 7; ChR2, F3,48 = 4.844, P < 0.05, n = 9) in the three-chamber assay. i, j, Quantification of chamber time (i: eYFP, F6,54 = 1.058, P = 0.3989, n = 7; NpHR, F6,81 = 13.04, P < 0.01, n = 10) and proximity time (j: eYFP, F3,36 = 1.661, P = 0.1926, n = 7; NpHR, F3,54 = 16.29, P < 0.01, n = 10) in the three-chamber assay. k, l, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (k: F1,52 = 0.01018, P = 0.9200, n = 13–15), locomotion assay (l: F1,52 = 0.7626, P = 0.3865, n = 13–15), and centre time (m: F5,130 = 0.766, P = 0.5759, n = 13–15) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 in DR receiving soma stimulation. np, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (n: F1,30 = 0.04112, P = 0.8407, n = 7–10), locomotion assay (o: F1,30 = 0.3837, P = 0.5403, n = 7–10), and centre time (p: F5,80 = 1.195, P = 0.3190, n = 8–10) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-NpHR in DR receiving soma stimulation. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Bidirectional modulation of DR-to-NAc 5-HT terminals modifies sociability, but not control behaviours.

a, b, Quantification of chamber time (a: eYFP, F6,63 = 1.383, P = 0.2352, n = 8; ChR2, F6,72 = 4.891, P < 0.05, n = 9) and proximity time (b: eYFP, F3,42 = 0.9652, P = 0.4181, n = 8; ChR2, F3,48 = 7.565, P < 0.05, n = 9) in the three-chamber assay. c, d, Quantification of chamber time (c: eYFP, F6,81 = 1.626, P = 0.1506, n = 10; NpHR, F6,81 = 6.253, P < 0.05, n = 10) and proximity time (d: eYFP, F3,54 = 2.304, P = 0.0872, n = 10; NpHR, F3,54 = 7.821, P < 0.05, n = 10) in the three-chamber assay. eg, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (e: F1,30 = 0.00206, P = 0.9641, n = 8–9), locomotion assay (f: F1,30 = 0.03023, P = 0.8631, n = 8–9), and centre time (g: F5,75 = 1.205, P = 0.3151, n = 8–9) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 in DR receiving DR-to-NAc terminal stimulation. hj, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (h: F1,38 = 0.213, P = 0.6471, n = 10–11), locomotion assay (i: F1,34 = 1.077, P = 0.3066, n = 9–10), and centre time (j: F5,90 = 0.1646, P = 0.9749, n = 9–10) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-NpHR in DR receiving DR-to-NAc terminal stimulation. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 3 16p11.2 deletion decreases sociability, but not an anxiety-related behaviour.

a, b, Quantification of chamber time (a: control, F2,45 = 39.5, P < 0.001, n = 16; heterozygous, F2,21 = 23.39, P < 0.001, n = 8; homozygous, F2,21 = 31.54, P < 0.001, n = 8) and proximity time (b: control, F1,30 = 14.61, P < 0.001, n = 16; heterozygous, F1,14 = 10.14, P < 0.01, n = 8; homozygous, F1,14 = 11.88, P < 0.01, n = 8) in the three-chamber assay. c, Quantification of centre time (c: F10,135 = 1.03, P = 0.4215, n = 7–15) in control, heterozygous 16p11.2flx:Nes-creER and homozygous 16p11.2flx:Nes-creER mice. d, e, Quantification of chamber time in the three-chamber assay (d: 16p11.2flx:∆cre, F2,24 = 121.2, P < 0.001, n = 9; 16p11.2flx:cre, F2,24 = 27.86, P < 0.001, n = 9; Sert-cre:16p11.2flx, F2,21 = 84.95, P < 0.001, n = 8) and proximity time (e: 16p11.2flx:∆cre, F1,16 = 26.13, P < 0.001, n = 9; 16p11.2flx:cre, F1,16 = 6.885, P < 0.05, n = 9; Sert-cre:16p11.2flx, F1,14 = 44.00, P < 0.001, n = 8). f, Quantification of centre time in (c: F2,22 = 0.6019, P = 0.5565, n = 8–9) 16p11.2flx:∆cre, 16p11.2flx:cre and Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Optogenetic activation of DR neurons reverses social deficits induced by 16p11.2 deletion, but does not alter control behaviours.

a, Schematic of AAV-DJ-Cre and DIO-ChR2 injected into and optic fibre implanted above the DR in 16p11.2flx mice. b, Timeline of behavioural experiments. c, d, Quantification of sociability during juvenile interaction (cF1,36 = 62.43, P < 0.001, n = 10) and the three-chamber sociability assay (dF1,34 = 2.298, P < 0.05, n = 9–10) in 16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 and AAV-DJ-Cre in DR receiving soma stimulation. e, f, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (e: eYFP, F2,24 = 92.48, P < 0.001, n = 9 (left); F1,16 = 17.53, P < 0.05, n = 9 (right); f: ChR2, F6,81 = 3.085, P < 0.05, n = 10 (left); F3,54 = 3.493, P < 0.05, n = 10 (right)). gi, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (g: F1,36 = 0.956, P = 0.3424, n = 10), locomotion assay (h: F1,36 = 1.962, P = 0.1698, n = 10), and centre time (i: F5,90 = 0.7668, P = 0.5761, n = 10) in 16p11.2flx mice. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. The schematic of the mouse brain in this figure has been adapted with permission from Franklin & Paxinos46. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Optogenetic activation of DR 5-HT neurons or DR-to-NAc 5-HT terminals rescues social deficits induced by 16p11.2 deletion, but does not alter control behaviours.

a, b, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (a: eYFP, F2,21 = 84.95, P < 0.001, n = 8 (left); F1,14 = 44.00, P < 0.001, n = 8 (right); b: ChR2, F6,81 = 9.26, P < 0.001, n = 10 (left); F3,54 = 11.54, P < 0.001, n = 10 (right)). ce, Quantification of the novel object interaction assay (c: F1,32 = 0.03819, P = 0.8463, n = 9), locomotion assay (d: F1,32 = 0.141, P = 0.7097, n = 8–10), and centre time (e: F5,80 = 0.195, P = 0.9636, n = 8–10) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 in DR receiving soma stimulation. f, g, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (f: eYFP, F2,27 = 73.89, P < 0.001, n = 10 (left); F1,18 = 63.38, P < 0.001, n = 10 (right); g: ChR2, F6,81 = 11.33, P < 0.001, n = 10 (left); F3,54 = 14.55, P < 0.001, n = 10 (right)). hj, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (h: F1,36 = 0.01038, P = 0.9194, n = 10), locomotion assay (i: F1,32 = 0.3655, P = 0.5497, n = 9), and centre time (j: F5,90 = 0.9092, P = 0.4788, n = 10) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 in DR receiving DR-to-NAc 5-HT terminal stimulation. Data are mean ± s.e.m. ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 6 5-HT release in the NAc is not acutely reinforcing.

a, b, Quantification of chamber time in the real-time CPP assay for 0 Hz (a) and 20 Hz (b) stimulation for initial (left) and reversal (right) stimulations (a: 0 Hz initial F2,16 = 10.22, P < 0.05, n = 9; 0 Hz reversal F2,16 = 29.01, P < 0.001, n = 9; b: 20 Hz initial F2,16 = 19.37, P < 0.001, n = 9; 20 Hz reversal F2,16 = 7.53, P < 0.01, n = 9) in Sert-cre mice receiving DR-to-NAc terminal stimulation. c, d, Quantification of chamber time in the real-time CPP assay for 0 Hz (c) and 20 Hz (d) stimulation for initial (left) and reversal (right) stimulations (c: 0 Hz initial F2,16 = 12.44, P < 0.001, n = 9; 0 Hz reversal F2,16 = 19.92, P < 0.001, n = 9; d: 20 Hz initial F2,16 = 8.56, P < 0.01, n = 9; 20 Hz reversal F2,16 = 9.517, P < 0.001, n = 9) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice receiving DR-to-NAc terminal stimulation. e, Quantification of nosepokes for active and inactive ports for Sert-cre and Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice (Sert-cre F2,32 = 1.9, P = 0.1655, n = 9; Sert-cre:16p11.2flx F2,32 = 0.25, P = 0.7821, n = 9). f, g, Quantification of chamber time (left) and proximity time (right) in high-fat food three-chamber assay for Sert-cre mice (F6,72 = 0.6713, P = 0.6731, n = 9; F3,48 = 1.495, P = 0.2279, n = 10) and Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice (F6,72 = 0.4006, P = 0.8763, n = 10; F3,48 = 0.4157, P = 0.7425, n = 10) (g). Post-hoc analysis showed no significant difference between stimulated and non-stimulated chambers. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, one-way (ad) or two-way (f, g) ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test, or one-way ANOVA with Sidak’s multiple comparison post hoc test comparing active to inactive nosepokes (e). Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 7 Activation of DR 5-HT terminals in the dorsal striatum does not enhance sociability nor rescue social deficits induced by 16p11.2 deletion.

a, Schematic of DIO-ChR2-eYFP injected into the DR and optic fibre implanted above the dorsal striatum (DS) in Sert-cre or Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice. b, Timeline of behavioural experiments. c, d, Quantification of sociability during the juvenile interaction assay (cF1,14 = 0.5429, P = 0.4734, n = 4–5) and sociability in the three-chamber assay (dF1,14 = 0.055, P = 0.8177, n = 4–5) in Sert-cre or Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-eYFP or DIO-ChR2 with terminal stimulation of DR 5-HT neurons in the dorsal striatum. e, f, Quantification of the three-chamber assay showing chamber (left) and proximity (right) time (e: Sert-cre, F6,36 = 1.078, P = 0.3939, n = 5 (left); F3,24 = 2.009, P = 0.1395, n = 5 (right); f: Sert-cre:16p11.2flx, F2,9 = 16.44, P < 0.001, n = 4 (left); F1,6 = 11.2, P < 0.01, n = 4 (right)). gi, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (g: F1,14 = 0.058, P = 0.8125, n = 4–5), locomotion assay (h: F1,14 = 0.6195, P = 0.4444, n = 4–5), and centre time (i: F1,7 = 8.292, P < 0.05, n = 4–5) in Sert-cre or Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and considered were not significant. The schematic of the mouse brain in this figure has been adapted with permission from Franklin & Paxinos46. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 8 Activation of DR-to-NAc 5-HT terminals does not elicit long-lasting effects on sociability.

aj, Quantification of sociability during juvenile interaction assay on day 1 of stimulation (a: F1,16 = 10.65, P < 0.001, n = 9), day 2 (b: F1,16 = 16.71, P < 0.01, n = 9), day 3 session 1 (c: F1,16 = 17.7, P < 0.01, n = 9), session 2 (d: F1,16 = 27.05, P < 0.05, n = 9), session 3 (e: F1,16 = 13.35, P < 0.01, n = 9), session 4 (f: F1,16 = 25.03, P < 0.05, n = 9) and day 4 session 1 (g: F1,16 = 17.41, P < 0.001, n = 9), session 2 (h: F1,16 = 39.76, P < 0.01, n = 9), session 3 (i: F1,16 = 35.49, P < 0.001, n = 9), and session 4 (j: F1,16 = 8.295, P < 0.01, n = 9) in Sert-cre or Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-ChR2 with DR-to-NAc 5-HT terminal stimulation. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 9 5-HT1b receptor antagonist infusion into NAc blocks enhanced sociability due to DR 5-HT neuron stimulation.

a, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (a: ChR2 + vehicle, F6,54 = 15.15, P < 0.001, n = 7 (left); F3,36 = 18.00, P < 0.001, n = 7 (right); b: ChR2 + NAS-181, F6,45 = 1.479, P = 0.2069, n = 6 (left); F3,30 = 1.926, P = 0.1467, n = 6 (right)) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-ChR2 in DR with either vehicle (red) or NAS-181 (pink) infused into the NAc before analysis of behaviour. c, d, Quantification of sociability during the juvenile interaction assay (c: F1,24 = 0.004638, P = 0.9463, n = 7) and the three-chamber assay (d: F1,22 = 0.1686, P = 0.1686, n = 6–7) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP in DR with either vehicle (black) or NAS-181 (grey) infused into NAc before behaviour. e, f, Quantification of the three-chamber assay showing chamber and proximity time (e: eYFP + vehicle, F6,54 = 12.36, P < 0.001, n = 7 (left); F3,36 = 15.98, P < 0.01, n = 7 (right); f: eYFP + NAS-181, F6,45 = 0.4512, P = 0.8403, n = 6 (left); F3,30 = 0.7365, P = 0.7365, n = 6 (right)) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP in DR with either vehicle (grey) or NAS-181 (blue) infused into the NAc before analysis of behaviour. gi, Quantification of the novel object interaction assay (g: F1,24 = 0.0791, P = 0.7809, n = 7), locomotion assay (h: F1,24 = 0.8954, P = 0.3535, n = 7), and centre time (i: F5,60 = 0.6042, P = 0.6969, n = 7) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-eYFP in DR with either vehicle (grey) or NAS-181 (blue) infused into the NAc before behaviour. Data are mean ± s.e.m. ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 10 5-HT1b receptor antagonist infusion into the NAc does not alter control behaviours and blocks rescue of 16p11.2 deletion social deficits by DR 5-HT neuron stimulation.

ac, Quantification of the novel object interaction assay (a: F1,24 = 0.0579, P = 0.8120, n = 7), locomotion assay (b: F1,24 = 0.4764, P = 0.4967, n = 7), and centre time (c: F5,60 = 0.3936, P = 0.8513, n = 7) in Sert-cre mice expressing DIO-ChR2 in DR with either vehicle (red) or NAS-181 (pink) infused into the NAc before behaviour. d, e, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (d: ChR2 + vehicle, F6,90 = 9.03, P < 0.05, n = 11 (left); F3,60 = 13.04, P < 0.05, n = 11 (right); e: ChR2 + NAS-181, F6,90 = 1.226, P = 0.3004, n = 11 (left); F3,60 = 1.69, P = 0.1786, n = 11 (right)) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-ChR2 in DR with either vehicle (red) or NAS-181 (aqua) infused into the NAc before behaviour assays during optogenetic stimulation. fh, Quantification of novel object interaction assay (f: F1,18 = 01.263, P = 0.2758, n = 5–6), locomotion assay (g: F1,18 = 0.0344, P = 0.8549, n = 5–6), and centre time (h: F5,45 = 1.22, P = 0.3155, n = 5–6) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice expressing DIO-ChR2 in DR with either vehicle (black) or NAS-181 (blue) infused into the NAc before behaviour assays. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 11 Infusion of 5-HT1b receptor agonist into the NAc increases sociability, but does not alter control behaviours.

a, Schematic of 5-HT1b receptor agonist (CP93129) infusion into the NAc in Sert-cre or Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice. b, Timeline of behavioural experiments. c, d, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (c: vehicle, F2,15 = 45.82, P < 0.001 (left); F3,30 = 4.453, P < 0.05 (right), n = 6; d: CP93129, F2,15 = 63.11, P < 0.001 (left); F1,10 = 17.23, P < 0.05, (right), n = 6) in Sert-cre mice with either vehicle (red) or CP93129 (aqua) infused into the NAc before analysis of behaviour. e, f, Quantification of chamber and proximity time in the three-chamber assay (e: vehicle, F2,12 = 67.49, P < 0.001(left); F1,8 = 41.03, P < 0.001 (right), n = 5; f: CP93129, F2,12 = 29.73, P < 0.001 (left); F1,8 = 17.17, P < 0.01 (right), n = 5) in Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice with either vehicle (blue) or CP93129 (pink) infused into the NAc before analysis of behaviour. gi, Quantification of the novel object interaction assay (g: F1,18 = 1.612, P = 0.2204, n = 5–6), locomotion assay (h: F1,18 = 0.0149, P = 0.9041, n = 5–6), and centre time (i: F5,50 = 1.492, P = 0.2093; F5,40 = 0.4561, P = 0.8063, n = 5–6) in Sert-cre and Sert-cre:16p11.2flx mice with either vehicle or NAS-181 infused into the NAc before behaviour. Data are mean ± s.e.m. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001; repeated measures, two-way ANOVA with Tukey’s multiple comparison post hoc test. Comparisons with no asterisk had P > 0.05 and were considered not significant. The schematic of the mouse brain in this figure has been adapted with permission from Franklin & Paxinos46. Source Data

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Walsh, J.J., Christoffel, D.J., Heifets, B.D. et al. 5-HT release in nucleus accumbens rescues social deficits in mouse autism model. Nature 560, 589–594 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0416-4

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