Cholinergic signaling in the hippocampus regulates social stress resilience and anxiety- and depression-like behavior

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Feb 26;110(9):3573-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1219731110. Epub 2013 Feb 11.


Symptoms of depression can be induced in humans through blockade of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) whereas antidepressant-like effects can be produced in animal models and some clinical trials by limiting activity of acetylcholine (ACh) receptors. Thus, ACh signaling could contribute to the etiology of mood regulation. To test this hypothesis, we administered the AChE inhibitor physostigmine to mice and demonstrated an increase in anxiety- and depression-like behaviors that was reversed by administration of nicotinic or muscarinic antagonists. The behavioral effects of physostigmine were also reversed by administration of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor fluoxetine. Administration of fluoxetine also increased AChE activity throughout the brain, with the greatest change in the hippocampus. To determine whether cholinergic signaling in the hippocampus could contribute to the systemic effects of cholinergic drugs, we infused physostigmine or virally delivered shRNAs targeting AChE into the hippocampus. Both pharmacological and molecular genetic decreases in hippocampal AChE activity increased anxiety- and depression-like behaviors and decreased resilience to repeated stress in a social defeat paradigm. The behavioral changes due to shRNA-mediated knockdown of AChE were rescued by coinfusion of an shRNA-resistant AChE transgene into the hippocampus and reversed by systemic administration of fluoxetine. These data demonstrate that ACh signaling in the hippocampus promotes behaviors related to anxiety and depression. The sensitivity of these effects to fluoxetine suggests that shRNA-mediated knockdown of hippocampal AChE represents a model for anxiety- and depression-like phenotypes. Furthermore, abnormalities in the cholinergic system may be critical for the etiology of mood disorders and could represent an endophenotype of depression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anxiety / complications
  • Anxiety / drug therapy
  • Anxiety / metabolism
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Cholinergic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Cholinergic Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Cholinergic Neurons / drug effects
  • Cholinergic Neurons / metabolism*
  • Cholinergic Neurons / pathology
  • Dependovirus / metabolism
  • Depression / complications
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Fluoxetine / pharmacology
  • Fluoxetine / therapeutic use
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Hindlimb Suspension
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / metabolism*
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Phenotype
  • Physostigmine
  • RNA, Small Interfering / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / metabolism
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Signal Transduction* / drug effects
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / drug therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Time Factors


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Cholinergic Antagonists
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • Fluoxetine
  • Physostigmine
  • Acetylcholinesterase