Histopathologic characterization of the BTBR mouse model of autistic-like behavior reveals selective changes in neurodevelopmental proteins and adult hippocampal neurogenesis

Mol Autism. 2011 May 16;2(1):7. doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-2-7.


Background: The inbred mouse strain BTBR T+ tf/J (BTBR) exhibits behavioral deficits that mimic the core deficits of autism. Neuroanatomically, the BTBR strain is also characterized by a complete absence of the corpus callosum. The goal of this study was to identify novel molecular and cellular changes in the BTBR mouse, focusing on neuronal, synaptic, glial and plasticity markers in the limbic system as a model for identifying putative molecular and cellular substrates associated with autistic behaviors.

Methods: Forebrains of 8 to 10-week-old male BTBR and age-matched C57Bl/6J control mice were evaluated by immunohistochemistry using free-floating and paraffin embedded sections. Twenty antibodies directed against antigens specific to neurons, synapses and glia were used. Nissl, Timm and acetylcholinesterase (AchE) stains were performed to assess cytoarchitecture, mossy fibers and cholinergic fiber density, respectively. In the hippocampus, quantitative stereological estimates for the mitotic marker bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) were performed to determine hippocampal progenitor proliferation, survival and differentiation, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA was quantified by in situ hybridization. Quantitative image analysis was performed for NG2, doublecortin (DCX), NeuroD, GAD67 and Poly-Sialic Acid Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule (PSA-NCAM).

Results: In midline structures including the region of the absent corpus callosum of BTBR mice, the myelin markers 2',3'-cyclic nucleotide 3'-phosphodiesterase (CNPase) and myelin basic protein (MBP) were reduced, and the oligodendrocyte precursor NG2 was increased. MBP and CNPase were expressed in small ectopic white matter bundles within the cingulate cortex. Microglia and astrocytes showed no evidence of gliosis, yet orientations of glial fibers were altered in specific white-matter areas. In the hippocampus, evidence of reduced neurogenesis included significant reductions in the number of doublecortin, PSA-NCAM and NeuroD immunoreactive cells in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus, and a marked reduction in the number of 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU) positive progenitors. Furthermore, a significant and profound reduction in BDNF mRNA was seen in the BTBR dentate gyrus. No significant differences were seen in the expression of AchE, mossy fiber synapses or immunoreactivities of microtubule-associated protein MAP2, parvalbumin and glutamate decarboxylase GAD65 or GAD67 isoforms.

Conclusions: We documented modest and selective alterations in glia, neurons and synapses in BTBR forebrain, along with reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Of all markers examined, the most distinctive changes were seen in the neurodevelopmental proteins NG2, PSA-NCAM, NeuroD and DCX. Our results are consistent with aberrant development of the nervous system in BTBR mice, and may reveal novel substrates to link callosal abnormalities and autistic behaviors. The changes that we observed in the BTBR mice suggest potential novel therapeutic strategies for intervention in autism spectrum disorders.