Deficits in behavioral flexibility are a hallmark of multiple psychiatric, neurological, and substance use disorders. These deficits are often marked by decreased function of the prefrontal cortex (PFC); however, the genesis of such executive deficits remains understudied. Here we report how the most preventable cause of developmental disability, in utero exposure to alcohol, alters cortico-striatal circuit activity leading to impairments in behavioral flexibility in adulthood. We utilized a translational touch-screen task coupled with in vivo electrophysiology in adult mice to examine single unit and coordinated activity of the lateral orbital frontal cortex (OFC) and dorsolateral striatum (DS) during flexible behavior. Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) decreased OFC, and increased DS, single unit activity during reversal learning and altered the number of choice responsive neurons in both regions. PAE also decreased coordinated activity within the OFC and DS as measured by oscillatory field activity and altered spike-field coupling. Furthermore, PAE led to sustained connectivity between regions past what was seen in control animals. These findings suggest that PAE causes altered coordination within and between the OFC and DS, promoting maladaptive perseveration. Our model suggests that in optimally functioning mice OFC disengages the DS and updates the newly changed reward contingency, whereas in PAE animals, aberrant and persistent OFC to DS signaling drives behavioral inflexibility during early reversal sessions. Together, these findings demonstrate how developmental exposure alters circuit-level activity leading to behavioral deficits and suggest a critical role for coordination of neural timing during behaviors requiring executive function.
Keywords: Executive control; In vivo electrophysiology; Local field potential; Touchscreen.
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