Summary: Genome and transcriptome analysis revealed BTBR autism mouse models have increased levels of endogenous retrovirus genes. BTBR/R models of ASD showed differences in the expression of a variety of genes that are indicative of endogenous retrovirus activation. BTBR/R mice exhibit autistic-like behaviors without reduced learning abilities.
Source: Kobe University
Autism (autism spectrum disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that remains largely unexplored despite the rapidly increasing number of patients.
Reasons for this continuing increase in people diagnosed with autism include changes to diagnostic criteria and older fathers becoming more common.
Autism is strongly related to genetic factors and can be caused by abnormalities in DNA structure, such as copy number variations.
Animal models, especially mice, are often used in research to illuminate the pathology of autism. Among these models, BTBR/J is a mouse model of the natural onset of autism that is commonly used.
Studies have reported various abnormalities in BTBR/J mice including impairment of the corpus callosum (which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain) and excessive immune system signaling.
However, it is not fully understood why this particular lineage displays autistic-like behavioral abnormalities.
The aim of the current study was to shed light on the onset mechanism of these autistic-like behavioral abnormalities by conducting comparative analysis on BTBR/J and its subspecies BTBR/R.
First of all, the researchers conducted MRI scans on BTBR/J and BTBR/R mice to investigate structural differences in each region of the brain.
The results revealed that there were differences between BTBR/J and BTBR/R mice in 33 regions including the amygdala. A particularly prominent difference discovered was that even though BTBR/J’s corpus callosum is impaired, BTBR/R’s is normal.
Next, the research group used the array CGH method to compare BTBR/R’s copy number variations with that of a normal mouse model (B6). They revealed that BTBR/R mice had significantly increased levels of endogenous retroviruses (ERV) in comparison to B6 mice.
Furthermore, qRT-PCR tests revealed that these retroviruses were activated in BTBR/R mice. On the other hand, in B6 mice there was no change in the expression of LINE ERV (which is classified in the same repetitive sequence), indicating that this retroviral activation is specific to BTBR.
Subsequently, the researchers carried out single-cell RNA analysis on the tissue of embryonic BTBR mice (on the AGM and yolk sac). The results provide evidence of ERV activation in BTBR mice, as expression changes were observed in a group of genes downstream of ERV.
Lastly, the researchers comprehensively investigated the differences between BTBR/J and BTBR/R on a behavioral level. BTBR/R mice were less anxious than BTBR/J and showed qualitative changes in ultrasound vocalizations, which are measured as a way to assess communicative ability in mice.
BTBR/R mice also exhibited more self-grooming behaviors and buried more marbles in the marble burying test.
These two tests were designed to detect repetitive behavioral abnormalities in autistic individuals. From the results, it was clear that BTBR/R exhibits more repetitive behaviors (i.e. it is more symptomatic) than BTBR/J.
The 3-chamber social interaction test, which measures how closely a mouse will approach another mouse, also revealed more pronounced social deficits in BTBR/R than BTBR/J mice.
In addition, a Barnes maze was used to conduct a spatial learning test, in which BTBR/J mice exhibited reduced learning ability compared to B6 (normal mice). BTBR/R mice, on the other hand, exhibited similar ability to B6.
Overall, the study revealed that retrovirus activation causes the copy number variants in BTBR mice to increase, which leads to the differences in behavior and brain structure seen in BTBR/J and BTBR/R mice.
BTBR/J mice are widely used by researchers as a mouse model of autism. However, the results of this study highlight the usefulness of the other lineage of BTBR/R mice because they exhibit autistic-like behavior without compromised spatial learning ability. The results also suggest that it may be possible to develop new treatments for autism that suppress ERV activation.
Furthermore, it is necessary to classify autism subtypes according to their onset mechanism, which is a vital first step towards opening up new avenues of treatment for autism.
The study was supported by funding from organizations including the following:
- Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
- The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development’s ‘Strategic Research Program for Brain Sciences (SRPBS)’ (Psychiatric & Neurological Disorders)
- Takeda Science Foundation
About this genetics and autism research news
Author: Verity Townsend
Source: Kobe University
Contact: Verity Townsend – Kobe University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News. Created with DALL-E 2 technology
Original Research: Open access.
“An old model with new insights: endogenous retroviruses drive the evolvement toward ASD susceptibility and hijack transcription machinery during development” by Toru Takumi et al. Molecular Psychiatry
An old model with new insights: endogenous retroviruses drive the evolvement toward ASD susceptibility and hijack transcription machinery during development
The BTBR T+Itpr3tf/J (BTBR/J) strain is one of the most valid models of idiopathic autism, serving as a potent forward genetics tool to dissect the complexity of autism.
We found that a sister strain with an intact corpus callosum, BTBR TF/ArtRbrc (BTBR/R), showed more prominent autism core symptoms but moderate ultrasonic communication/normal hippocampus-dependent memory, which may mimic autism in the high functioning spectrum.
Intriguingly, disturbed epigenetic silencing mechanism leads to hyperactive endogenous retrovirus (ERV), a mobile genetic element of ancient retroviral infection, which increases de novo copy number variation (CNV) formation in the two BTBR strains.
This feature makes the BTBR strain a still evolving multiple-loci model toward higher ASD susceptibility.
Furthermore, active ERV, analogous to virus infection, evades the integrated stress response (ISR) of host defense and hijacks the transcriptional machinery during embryonic development in the BTBR strains.
These results suggest dual roles of ERV in the pathogenesis of ASD, driving host genome evolution at a long-term scale and managing cellular pathways in response to viral infection, which has immediate effects on embryonic development.
The wild-type Draxin expression in BTBR/R also makes this substrain a more precise model to investigate the core etiology of autism without the interference of impaired forebrain bundles as in BTBR/J.