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Dissecting the neuronal basis of threat responding in mice


Ruat,  Julia
Dept. Stress Neurobiology and Neurogenetics, Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Max Planck Society;
IMPRS Translational Psychiatry, Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Max Planck Society;

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Ruat, J. (2022). Dissecting the neuronal basis of threat responding in mice. PhD Thesis, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, München.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000B-4838-6
Environmental threats demand adaptive defensive responses of an organism that ensure its survival. Extreme stressors, however, can unbalance stress homeostasis and lead to long-term changes that impair appropriate defensive behaviors and emotional responses. In my thesis, I assessed (1) the interaction of two stress-related neuromodulatory systems, (2) the effects of a traumatic incident on brain volume and hyperarousal, and (3) sonic vocalization as a defensive behavior in mice, and discussed the topics in three independent studies.
In the first study, I evaluated the interaction of two regulatory systems with respect to fear, anxiety, and trauma-related behaviors. Although the endocannabinoid and the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) systems are well described in modulating stressrelatedresponses, the direct interaction of both systems remained poorly understood. The generation of a new conditional knockout mouse line that selectively lacked the expression of the cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptor in CRF-positive neurons presented no differences in various tests of fear and anxiety-related behaviors under basal conditions or after a traumatic event. Also stress hormone levels were unaffected. However, male knockout animals exhibited a significantly increased acoustic startle response thus suggesting a specific involvement of CB1-CRF interactions in controlling arousal.
In the second study, I assessed the consequences of a traumatic experience on behavior and grey matter volume in mice. Whole-brain deformation-based morphometry (DBM) by means of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after incubation of a traumatic incident showed changes in the dorsal hippocampus and the reticular nucleus. Using the severity of hyperarousal as regressor for cross-sectional volumetric differences between traumatized mice and controls revealed a negative correlation with the dorsal hippocampus. Further, longitudinal analysis including volumetric measurements before and after the traumatic incident showed that volume reductions in the globus pallidus reflect trauma-related changes in hyperarousal severity.
In the third study, I characterized sonic vocalization as a defensive behavior in mice. Mice bred for high anxiety-related behavior (HAB) were found to have a high disposition to emit audible squeaks when taken by the tail which was not the case for any of the other five mouse lines tested. The calls emitted had a fundamental frequency of 3.8 kHz and were shown to be sensitive to anxiolytic but not panicolytic compounds. Manganese-enhanced MRI (MEMRI) scans pointed towards an increased tonic activity, among others, in the periaqueductal grey (PAG). Inhibition of the dorsal PAG by muscimol not only completely abolished sonic vocalization, but also reduced anxiety-like behavior. This suggests that sonic vocalization of mice is related to anxiety and controlled by the PAG. To explore the ecological relevance of defensive vocalization, I performed playback experiments with conspecifics and putative predators. Squeaks turned out to be aversive to HAB mice but became appetitive to both mice and rats when a stimulus mouse was present during playback.
Collectively, the results of this thesis provide novel insights into fear and anxiety-related behaviors and shine light onto their mechanistic basis and ecological relevance.