Abnormal vestibular brainstem structure and function in an animal model of autism spectrum disorder

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Brain research


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that includes several key neuropathological changes and behavioral impairments. In utero exposure to the anti-epileptic valproic acid (VPA) increases risk of an ASD diagnosis in human subjects and timed in utero exposure to VPA is a clinically relevant animal model of ASD. Many human subjects with ASD have cerebellar hypoplasia, fewer Purkinje cells, difficulties with balance, ophthalmic dysfunction and abnormal responses to vestibular stimulation and such vestibular difficulties are likely under reported in ASD. We have recently shown that animals exposed to VPA in utero have fewer neurons in their auditory brainstem, reduced axonal projections to the auditory midbrain and thalamus, reduced expression of the calcium binding protein calbindin (CB) in the brainstem and cerebellum, smaller and occasionally ectopic cerebellar Purkinje cells and ataxia on several motor tasks. Based on these findings, we hypothesized that in utero VPA exposure similarly impacts structure and function of the vestibular brainstem. We investigated this hypothesis using quantitative morphometric analyses, immunohistochemistry for CB, a battery of vestibular challenges, recording of vestibular-evoked myogenic potentials and spontaneous eye movements. Our results indicate that VPA exposure results in fewer neurons in the vestibular nuclei, fewer CB-positive puncta, difficulty on certain motor tasks, longer latency VEMPs and significantly more horizontal eye movements. These findings indicate that the vestibular nuclei are impacted by in utero VPA exposure and provide a basis for further study of vestibular circuits in human cases of ASD.

Medical Subject Headings

Animals; Autism Spectrum Disorder; Brain Stem; Calbindins; Disease Models, Animal; Female; Humans; Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects; Valproic Acid

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