The Relative Contributions of Cell-Dependent Cortical Microcircuit Aging to Cognition and Anxiety

Biol Psychiatry. 2019 Feb 1;85(3):257-267. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.09.019. Epub 2018 Oct 5.


Background: Aging is accompanied by altered thinking (cognition) and feeling (mood), functions that depend on information processing by brain cortical cell microcircuits. We hypothesized that age-associated long-term functional and biological changes are mediated by gene transcriptomic changes within neuronal cell types forming cortical microcircuits, namely excitatory pyramidal cells (PYCs) and inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acidergic neurons expressing vasoactive intestinal peptide (Vip), somatostatin (Sst), and parvalbumin (Pvalb).

Methods: To test this hypothesis, we assessed locomotor, anxiety-like, and cognitive behavioral changes between young (2 months of age, n = 9) and old (22 months of age, n = 12) male C57BL/6 mice, and performed frontal cortex cell type-specific molecular profiling, using laser capture microscopy and RNA sequencing. Results were analyzed by neuroinformatics and validated by fluorescent in situ hybridization.

Results: Old mice displayed increased anxiety and reduced working memory. The four cell types displayed distinct age-related transcriptomes and biological pathway profiles, affecting metabolic and cell signaling pathways, and selective markers of neuronal vulnerability (Ryr3), resilience (Oxr1), and mitochondrial dynamics (Opa1), suggesting high age-related vulnerability of PYCs, and variable degree of adaptation in gamma-aminobutyric acidergic neurons. Correlations between gene expression and behaviors suggest that changes in cognition and anxiety associated with age are partly mediated by normal age-related cell changes, and that additional age-independent decreases in synaptic and signaling pathways, notably in PYCs and somatostatin neurons, further contribute to behavioral changes.

Conclusions: Our study demonstrates cell-dependent differential vulnerability and coordinated cell-specific cortical microcircuit molecular changes with age. Collectively, the results suggest intrinsic molecular links among aging, cognition, and mood-related behaviors, with somatostatin neurons contributing evenly to both behavioral conditions.

Keywords: Aging; Anxiety; Canonical microcircuit; Cognitive deficit; Neuronal vulnerability; Ontology; Single cell–type RNAseq.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Anxiety / metabolism*
  • Cognition*
  • Frontal Lobe / metabolism*
  • GABAergic Neurons / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Motor Activity
  • Parvalbumins / metabolism
  • Pyramidal Cells / metabolism*
  • Somatostatin / metabolism
  • Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide / metabolism


  • Parvalbumins
  • Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide
  • Somatostatin