Cortical development & plasticity in the FMRP KO mouse
Autism is one of the leading causes of human intellectual disability (ID). More than 1% of the human population has autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), and it has been estimated that over 50% of those with ASDs also have ID. Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most common inherited form of mental retardation and is the leading known genetic cause of autism, affecting approximately 1 in 4000 males and 1 in 8000 females. Approximately 30% of boys with FXS will be diagnosed with autism in their later lives. The cause of FXS is through an over-expansion of the CGG trinucleotide repeat located at the 5’ untranslated region of the FMR1 gene, leading to hypermethylation of the surrounding sequence and eventually partially or fully silencing of the gene. Therefore, the protein product of the gene, fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP), is reduced or missing. As a single-gene disorder, FXS offers a scientifically tractable way to examine the underlying mechanism of the disease and also shed some light on understanding ASD and ID. The mouse model of FXS (Fmr1−/y mice) is widely accepted and used as a good model, offering good structural and face validity. Since a primary deficit of FXS is believed to be altered neuronal communication, in this thesis I examined white matter tract and dendritic spine abnormalities in the mouse model of FXS. Loss of FMRP does not alter the gross morphology of the white matter. However, recent brain imaging studies indicated that loss of FMRP could lead to some minute abnormalities in different major white matter tracts in the human brain. The gross white matter morphology and myelination was unaltered in the Fmr1−/y mice, however, a small but significant increase of axon diameter in the corpus callosum (CC) was found compared to wild-type (WT) controls. Our computation model suggested that the increase of axon diameter in the Fmr1−/y mice could lead to an increase of conduction velocity in these animals. One of the key phenotypes reported previously in the loss of FMRP is the increase of “immature” dendritic spines. The increase of long and thin spines was reported in several brain regions including the somatosensory cortex and visual cortex in both FXS patients and the mouse model of FXS. Although recent studies which employed state-of-the-art microscopy techniques suggested that only minute differences were noticed between the WT and Fmr1−/y mice. In agreement with previous findings, I found an increase of dendritic spine density in the visual cortex in the Fmr1−/y mice, and spine morphology was also different between the two genotypes. We found that the spine head diameter is significantly increased in the CA1 area of the apical dendrites of the Fmr1−/y mice compared to WT controls. Dendritic spine length is also significantly increased in the same region of the Fmr1−/y mice. However, apical spine head size does not alter between the two genotypes in the V1 region of the visual cortex, and spine length is significantly decreased in the Fmr1−/y mice compared to WT animals in this region. Lovastatin, a drug known as one of the 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl-CoA (HMG-CoA) reductase inhibitors, functions as a modulator of the mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) pathway through inhibiting Ras farnesylation, was used in an attempt to rescue the dendritic spine abnormalities in the Fmr1−/y mice. Mice lacking FMRP are susceptible to audiogenic seizure (AGS). Previous work has shown that 48 hr of lovastatin treatment reduced the incidence of AGS in the Fmr1−/y mice. However, chronic lovastatin treatment failed to rescue the spine density and morphology abnormalities in the Fmr1−/y mice. Mouse models are invaluable tools for modelling human diseases. However inter-strain differences have often confounded results between laboratories. In my final Chapter of this thesis, I compared two commonly used C57BL/6 substrains of mice by recording their electrophysiological responses to visual stimuli in vivo. I found a significant increase of high-frequency gamma power in adult C57BL/6JOla mice, and this phenomenon was reduced during the critical period. My results suggested that the C57BL/6JOla substrain has a significant stronger overall inhibitory network activity in the visual cortex than the C57BL/6J substrain. This is in good agreement with previous findings showing a lack of open-eye potentiation to monocular deprivation in the C57BL/6JOla substrain, and highlights the need for appropriate choice of mouse strain when studying neurodevelopmental models. They also give valuable insights into the genetic mechanisms that permit experience-dependent developmental plasticity. In summary, these findings give us a better understanding of the fine structure abnormalities of the Fmr1−/y mice, which in turn can benefit future discoveries of the underlying mechanisms of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ID and ASDs.