Deficiency of Cullin 3, a Protein Encoded by a Schizophrenia and Autism Risk Gene, Impairs Behaviors by Enhancing the Excitability of Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) DA Neurons

J Neurosci. 2023 Sep 6;43(36):6249-6267. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0247-23.2023. Epub 2023 Aug 9.


The dopaminergic neuromodulator system is fundamental to brain functions. Abnormal dopamine (DA) pathway is implicated in psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia (SZ) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Mutations in Cullin 3 (CUL3), a core component of the Cullin-RING ubiquitin E3 ligase complex, have been associated with SZ and ASD. However, little is known about the function and mechanism of CUL3 in the DA system. Here, we show that CUL3 is critical for the function of DA neurons and DA-relevant behaviors in male mice. CUL3-deficient mice exhibited hyperactive locomotion, deficits in working memory and sensorimotor gating, and increased sensitivity to psychostimulants. In addition, enhanced DA signaling and elevated excitability of the VTA DA neurons were observed in CUL3-deficient animals. Behavioral impairments were attenuated by dopamine D2 receptor antagonist haloperidol and chemogenetic inhibition of DA neurons. Furthermore, we identified HCN2, a hyperpolarization-activated and cyclic nucleotide-gated channel, as a potential target of CUL3 in DA neurons. Our study indicates that CUL3 controls DA neuronal activity by maintaining ion channel homeostasis and provides insight into the role of CUL3 in the pathogenesis of psychiatric disorders.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT This study provides evidence that Cullin 3 (CUL3), a core component of the Cullin-RING ubiquitin E3 ligase complex that has been associated with autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, controls the excitability of dopamine (DA) neurons in mice. Its DA-specific heterozygous deficiency increased spontaneous locomotion, impaired working memory and sensorimotor gating, and elevated response to psychostimulants. We showed that CUL3 deficiency increased the excitability of VTA DA neurons, and inhibiting D2 receptor or DA neuronal activity attenuated behavioral deficits of CUL3-deficient mice. We found HCN2, a hyperpolarization-activated channel, as a target of CUL3 in DA neurons. Our findings reveal CUL3's role in DA neurons and offer insights into the pathogenic mechanisms of autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

Keywords: Cullin3; HCN2; autism spectrum disorder; dopamine; neuronal excitability; schizophrenia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder*
  • Autistic Disorder*
  • Cullin Proteins / genetics
  • Cullin Proteins / metabolism
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Schizophrenia*
  • Ubiquitins / metabolism
  • Ubiquitins / pharmacology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area


  • Cullin Proteins
  • Dopamine
  • Ubiquitins
  • Cul3 protein, mouse