High-fat diet exacerbates cognitive rigidity and social deficiency in the BTBR mouse model of autism

Neuroscience. 2017 Mar 14;345:142-154. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.01.070. Epub 2016 Feb 11.


The global increase in rates of obesity has been accompanied by a similar surge in the number of autism diagnoses. Accumulating epidemiological evidence suggest a possible link between overweight and the risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), as well as autism severity. In laboratory animals, several studies have shown a connection between various environmental factors, including diet-induced obesity, and the development of autism-related behaviors. However, the effect of high-fat or imbalanced diet on a pre-existing autism-like phenotype is unclear. In this study, we employed the BTBR inbred mouse strain, a well-established mouse model for autism, to assess the impact of inadequate fattening nutrition on the autism-related behavioral phenotype. Male mice were fed by high-fat diet (HFD) or control balanced diet (control) from weaning onward, and tested in a series of behavioral assays as adults. In addition, we measured the hypothalamic expression levels of several genes involved in oxytocin and dopamine signaling, in search of a possible neurobiological underlying mechanism. As an internal control, we also employed similar metabolic and behavioral measures on neurotypical C57 mice. Compared to control-fed mice, BTBR mice fed by HFD showed marked aggravation in autism-related behaviors, manifested in increased cognitive rigidity and diminished preference for social novelty. Moreover, the total autism composite (severity) score was higher in the HFD group, and positively correlated with higher body weight. Finally, we revealed negative correlations associating dopamine signaling factors in the hypothalamus, to autism-related severity and body weight. In contrast, we found no significant effects of HFD on autism-related behaviors of C57 mice, though the metabolic effects of the diet were similar for both strains. Our results indicate a direct causative link between diet-induced obesity and worsening of a pre-existing autism-related behavior and emphasize the need for adequate nutrition in ASD patients. These findings might also implicate the involvement of hypothalamic dopamine in mediating this effect.

Keywords: BTBR; autism; cognitive rigidity; dopamine; nutrition; social behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autistic Disorder* / physiopathology
  • Autistic Disorder* / psychology
  • Body Weight
  • Cognition* / physiology
  • Diet, High-Fat / adverse effects*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Inbred Strains
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Random Allocation
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stereotyped Behavior / physiology


  • Dopamine