A number of specific genetic variants including gene mutations and single nucleotide variations have been identified in genomewide association studies of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD phenotypes in individuals carrying specific genetic variations are manifest mostly in a heterozygous state. Furthermore, individuals with most genetic variants show incomplete penetrance and phenotypic variability, suggesting that non-genetic factors are also involved in developing ASD. However, the mechanisms of how genetic and environmental factors interactively promote ASD are not clearly understood. In the present study, we investigated whether early-life stress (ELS) in D2 dopamine receptor heterozygous knockout (D2+/-) mice induces ASD-like symptoms. To address that, we exposed D2 heterozygous pups to maternal separation stress for 3 h daily for 13 days beginning on postnatal day 2. D2+/- adult mice that had experienced ELS exhibited impaired sociability in the three-chamber test and home-cage social interaction test and increased grooming behavior, whereas wildtype littermates exposed to ELS did not show those phenotypes. ELS-exposed D2+/- mice had decreased levels of BDNF, TrkB, phospho-ERK1/2 and phospho-CREB in the dorsal striatum. Administration of the TrkB agonist 7,8-dihydroxyflavone (7,8-DHF) to ELS-exposed D2+/- mice rescued the sociability deficits and repetitive behavior. In contrast, behavioral rescue by 7,8-DHF in ELS-exposed D2+/- mice was blocked when TrkB expression in the dorsal striatum was locally inhibited by the injection of TrkB-siRNA. Together, our results suggest that the interaction between ELS and defective D2 gene function promotes autistic-like behaviors by downregulating the BDNF-TrkB pathway in the dorsal striatum.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; TrkB receptor; dopamine receptors; dorsal striatum; early-life stress.