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Dendritic overgrowth and elevated ERK signaling during neonatal development in a mouse model of autism


Autism spectrum disorder (hereafter referred to as "ASD") is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impaired social communication and interactions, and restricted, repetitive activities or interests. Alterations in network connectivity and memory function are frequently observed in autism patients, often involving the hippocampus. However, specific changes during early brain development leading to disrupted functioning remain largely unclear. Here, we investigated the development of dendritic arbor of hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons in the BTBR T+tf/J (BTBR) mouse model of autism. BTBR mice display the defining behavioural features of autism, and also exhibit impaired learning and memory. We found that compared to control C57BL/6J (B6) animals, the lengths of both apical and basal dendrites were significantly greater in neonatal BTBR animals. Further, basal dendrites in the BTBR mice had higher branching complexity. In contrast, cross-sectional area of the soma was unchanged. In addition, we observed a similar density of CA1 pyramidal neurons and thickness of the neuronal layer between the two strains. Thus, there was a specific, compartmentalized overgrowth of dendrites during early development in the BTBR animals. Biochemical analysis further showed that the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK) pathway was up-regulated in the hippocampus of neonatal BTBR animals. Since dendritic structure is critical for information integration and relay, our data suggest that altered development of dendrites could potentially contribute to impaired hippocampal function and behavior observed in the BTBR model, and that this might be related to increased activation of the ERK pathway.

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