Accelerated head and brain growth (macrocephaly) during development is a replicated biological finding in a subset of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the relationship between brain overgrowth and the behavioral and cognitive symptoms of ASD is poorly understood. The PI3K-Akt-mTOR pathway regulates cellular growth; several genes encoding negative regulators of this pathway are ASD risk factors, including PTEN. Mutations in PTEN have been reported in individuals with ASD and macrocephaly. We report that brain overgrowth is widespread in Pten germline haploinsufficient (Pten(+/-)) mice, reflecting Pten mRNA expression in the developing brain. We then ask if broad brain overgrowth translates into general or specific effects on the development of behavior and cognition by testing Pten(+/-) mice using assays relevant to ASD and comorbidities. Deficits in social behavior were observed in both sexes. Males also showed abnormalities related to repetitive behavior and mood/anxiety. Females exhibited circadian activity and emotional learning phenotypes. Widespread brain overgrowth together with selective behavioral impairments in Pten(+/-) mice raises the possibility that most brain areas and constituent cell types adapt to an altered trajectory of growth with minimal impact on the behaviors tested in our battery; however, select areas/cell types relevant to social behavior are more vulnerable or less adaptable, thus resulting in social deficits. Probing dopaminergic neurons as a candidate vulnerable cell type, we found social behavioral impairments in mice with Pten conditionally inactivated in dopaminergic neurons that are consistent with the possibility that desynchronized growth in key cell types may contribute to ASD endophenotypes.
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