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Identifying Molecular Substrates in a Mouse Model of the Serotonin Transporter × Environment Risk Factor for Anxiety and Depression

      Background

      A polymorphism in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene modulates the association between adverse early experiences and risk for major depression in adulthood. Although human imaging studies have begun to elucidate the neural circuits involved in the 5-HTT × environment risk factor, a molecular understanding of this phenomenon is lacking. Such an understanding might help to identify novel targets for the diagnosis and therapy of mood disorders. To address this need, we developed a gene-environment screening paradigm in the mouse.

      Methods

      We established a mouse model in which a heterozygous null mutation in 5-HTT moderates the effects of poor maternal care on adult anxiety and depression-related behavior. Biochemical analysis of brains from these animals was performed to identify molecular substrates of the gene, environment, and gene × environment effects.

      Results

      Mice experiencing low maternal care showed deficient γ-aminobutyric acid–A receptor binding in the amygdala and 5-HTT heterozygous null mice showed decreased serotonin turnover in hippocampus and striatum. Strikingly, levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) messenger RNA in hippocampus were elevated exclusively in 5-HTT heterozygous null mice experiencing poor maternal care, suggesting that developmental programming of hippocampal circuits might underlie the 5-HTT × environment risk factor.

      Conclusions

      These findings demonstrate that serotonin plays a similar role in modifying the long-term behavioral effects of rearing environment in diverse mammalian species and identifies BDNF as a molecular substrate of this risk factor.

      Key Words

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