The neurobiological mechanisms by which only a minority of stress-exposed individuals develop psychiatric diseases remain largely unknown. Recent evidence suggests that dopaminergic neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) play a key role in the manifestation of stress vulnerability.
Using a social defeat paradigm, we segregated susceptible mice (socially avoidant) from unsusceptible mice (socially interactive) and examined VTA punches for changes in neurotrophic signaling. Employing a series of viral vectors, we sought to causally implicate these neurotrophic changes in the development of avoidance behavior.
Susceptibility to social defeat was associated with a significant reduction in levels of active/phosphorylated AKT (thymoma viral proto-oncogene) within the VTA, whereas chronic antidepressant treatment (in mice and humans) increased active AKT levels. This defeat-induced reduction in AKT activation in susceptible mice was both necessary and sufficient to recapitulate depressive behaviors associated with susceptibility. Pharmacologic reductions in AKT activity also significantly raised the firing frequency of VTA dopamine neurons, an important electrophysiologic hallmark of the susceptible phenotype.
These studies highlight a crucial role for decreases in VTA AKT signaling as a key mediator of the maladaptive cellular and behavioral response to chronic stress.
Keywords: Depression, mesolimbic dopamine, PTSD, resilience, social defeat, vulnerability