Infoscience

Thesis

Altered neocortical microcircuitry in the valproic acid rat model of autism

Autism is a wide-spectrum disorder with early childhood onset, affecting general cognitive capabilities and, in particular, complex information processing. Although interesting directions of research start to appear, the precise causes of the disorder and the resulting brain alterations have not been elucidated yet. The goal of this research project is to get a better understanding of the neocortical microcircuitry alterations in autism, using the valproic acid (VPA) rat model of autism. Exposure to VPA can cause several teratogenic effects, including autism in human if exposure occurs during the third week of gestation. Previous studies explored the results of prenatal VPA exposure in rats and found similar gross abnormalities to those in autism, such as diminished number of Purkinje cells. Behavioural studies further showed that a number of core symptoms, such as impairment in social interactions and higher sensitivity to sensory stimulation, are also present in the VPA-treated rats. We examined the postnatal effects of embryonic exposure to VPA on the microcircuitry properties of juvenile rat neocortex using in vitro electrophysiology. We found that prenatal VPA injection causes a significant increase of more than 50% of the local connectivity formed by pyramidal neurons of the somatosensory cortex, and that the neocortical network becomes hyper-reactive to external stimuli. We identify two possible compensatory mechanisms that may follow the observed hyperconnectivity: reduced excitability of pyramidal neurons and a decreased magnitude for individual synaptic connections. We also illustrate how NMDA receptors are significantly enhanced in the rat model and how this enhancement is associated with an increased plasticity in the neocortex. Both the somatosensorial and prefrontal cortex exhibit increased plasticity, suggesting a general enhanced plasticity in the brains of VPA-exposed rats. In addition, we show that multi-electrode array stimulation of the lateral amygdala reveals a hyper-reactive amygdala with increased synaptic plasticity. These alterations may account for some of the core symptoms in autism spectrum disorders. For example, hyperconnectivity could underlie symptoms such as aberrant reactions to sensory stimulation and altered attention. Also, the enhancement of NMDA mediated transmission and increased plasticity could explain the unusual learning and memory capabilities of some autistic children. Finally, we propose that the hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic amygdala underlies abnormal fear processing in this animal model of autism. We further speculate that abnormal fear processing could be a core pathology in autism which may give rise to behavioural symptoms, such as impairments in social interactions and resistance to rehabilitation.

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