Mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and both disorders share common symptoms and neurobiological defects. Relapse after successful treatment, known as long-term fear resurgence, is common in PTSD patients and a major therapeutic hurdle. We induced a mild focal TBI by controlled cortical impact (CCI) in male C57BL/6 J mice and used fear conditioning to assess PTSD-like behaviors and concomitant alterations in the fear circuitry. We found for the first time that mild TBI, and to a lesser extent sham (craniotomy), mice displayed a spontaneous resurgence of conditioned fear when tested for fear extinction memory recall, despite having effectively acquired and extinguished conditioned fear 6 weeks earlier in the same context. Other characteristic symptoms of PTSD are risk-taking behaviors and cognitive deficits. CCI mice displayed risk-taking behaviors, behavioral inflexibility and reductions in processing speed compared to naïve mice. In conjunction with these changes there were alterations in amygdala morphology 3 months post-trauma, and decreased myelin basic protein density at the primary lesion site and in distant secondary sites such as the hippocampus, thalamus, and amygdala, compared to sham mice. Furthermore, activity-dependent brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) transcripts were decreased in the prefrontal cortex, a key region for fear extinction consolidation, following fear extinction training in both TBI and, to a lesser extent, sham mice. This study shows for the first time that a mild brain injury can generate a spontaneous resurgence of conditioned fear associated with defective BDNF signalling in the prefrontal cortex, PTSD-like behaviors, and have enduring effects on the brain.
Keywords: Barnes maze; Brain derived neurotrophic factor; Fear conditioning; Myelin basic protein; Post-traumatic stress disorder; Risk-taking behaviors.
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