Dietary zinc supplementation rescues fear-based learning and synaptic function in the Tbr1+/- mouse model of autism spectrum disorders

Mol Autism. 2022 Mar 18;13(1):13. doi: 10.1186/s13229-022-00494-6.


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by a dyad of behavioural symptoms-social and communication deficits and repetitive behaviours. Multiple aetiological genetic and environmental factors have been identified as causing or increasing the likelihood of ASD, including serum zinc deficiency. Our previous studies revealed that dietary zinc supplementation can normalise impaired social behaviours, excessive grooming, and heightened anxiety in a Shank3 mouse model of ASD, as well as the amelioration of synapse dysfunction. Here, we have examined the efficacy and breadth of dietary zinc supplementation as an effective therapeutic strategy utilising a non-Shank-related mouse model of ASD-mice with Tbr1 haploinsufficiency.

Methods: We performed behavioural assays, amygdalar slice whole-cell patch-clamp electrophysiology, and immunohistochemistry to characterise the synaptic mechanisms underlying the ASD-associated behavioural deficits observed in Tbr1+/- mice and the therapeutic potential of dietary zinc supplementation. Two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with Šídák's post hoc test and one-way ANOVA with Tukey's post hoc multiple comparisons were performed for statistical analysis.

Results: Our data show that dietary zinc supplementation prevents impairments in auditory fear memory and social interaction, but not social novelty, in the Tbr1+/- mice. Tbr1 haploinsufficiency did not induce excessive grooming nor elevate anxiety in mice. At the synaptic level, dietary zinc supplementation reversed α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid receptor (AMPAR) and N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) hypofunction and normalised presynaptic function at thalamic-lateral amygdala (LA) synapses that are crucial for auditory fear memory. In addition, the zinc supplemented diet significantly restored the synaptic puncta density of the GluN1 subunit essential for functional NMDARs as well as SHANK3 expression in both the basal and lateral amygdala (BLA) of Tbr1+/- mice.

Limitations: The therapeutic effect of dietary zinc supplementation observed in rodent models may not reproduce the same effects in human patients. The effect of dietary zinc supplementation on synaptic function in other brain structures affected by Tbr1 haploinsufficiency including olfactory bulb and anterior commissure will also need to be examined.

Conclusions: Our data further the understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the effect of dietary zinc supplementation and verify the efficacy and breadth of its application as a potential treatment strategy for ASD.

Keywords: Amygdala; Autism spectrum disorder; Dietary zinc supplementation; Glutamatergic synapses; N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors; T-brain-1.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Fear / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Microfilament Proteins / metabolism
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / genetics
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • T-Box Domain Proteins / metabolism
  • T-Box Domain Proteins / pharmacology
  • Zinc / metabolism
  • Zinc / pharmacology


  • Microfilament Proteins
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Shank3 protein, mouse
  • T-Box Domain Proteins
  • TBR1 protein, human
  • Tbr1 protein, mouse
  • Zinc