Sensory integration difficulties have been reported in autism, but their underlying brain-circuit mechanisms are underexplored. Using five autism-related mouse models, Shank3+/ΔC, Mecp2R308/Y, Cntnap2−/−, L7-Tsc1 (L7/Pcp2Cre::Tsc1flox/+), and patDp(15q11-13)/+, we report specific perturbations in delay eyeblink conditioning, a form of associative sensory learning requiring cerebellar plasticity. By distinguishing perturbations in the probability and characteristics of learned responses, we found that probability was reduced in Cntnap2−/−, patDp(15q11-13)/+, and L7/Pcp2Cre::Tsc1flox/+, which are associated with Purkinje-cell/deep-nuclear gene expression, along with Shank3+/ΔC. Amplitudes were smaller in L7/Pcp2Cre::Tsc1flox/+ as well as Shank3+/ΔC and Mecp2R308/Y, which are associated with granule cell pathway expression. Shank3+/ΔC and Mecp2R308/Y also showed aberrant response timing and reduced Purkinje-cell dendritic spine density. Overall, our observations are potentially accounted for by defects in instructed learning in the olivocerebellar loop and response representation in the granule cell pathway. Our findings indicate that defects in associative temporal binding of sensory events are widespread in autism mouse models.
On a windy day, hearing the sound of wind makes many individuals squint in anticipation in order to protect their eyes. Linking two sensations that arrive within a split second of one another, such as sound and the feeling of wind, is a type of learning that requires the cerebellum, a region found at the base of the brain. When done in a laboratory setting, this particular form of learning has been dubbed eyeblink conditioning.
Individuals with autism tend to have difficulties with appropriate matching of different senses. For example, they have trouble identifying a video that goes with a spoken soundtrack. They also do not learn eyeblink conditioning the same way that other individuals do. However, it is not known which circuits in the brain are responsible for their difficulty. Kloth et al. now investigate this issue by asking whether versions of genes that increase the risk of autism in humans also disrupt eyeblink conditioning in mice. They tested five types of mouse model, each with a different genetic mutation that has previously been linked to autism. All five of these mutations cause defects in different cell types of the cerebellum, and all mice have abnormal social and habitual behaviors, similar to autistic people.
The tests involved shining a bright light at the mice, which was followed, a split second later, by a puff of air that always causes the mice to blink. After this had occurred dozens of times, the mice started to blink earlier, as soon as the light appeared, in anticipation of the puff of air. To test whether the mice had successfully learned to respond to just the bright light, the light was also occasionally flashed without a puff of air.
Kloth et al. found that the mice generally performed poorly in eyeblink conditioning, although in different ways depending on which cell types of the cerebellum were affected by the genetic mutations. Some mice blinked too soon or too late after the light appeared; others blinked weakly or less frequently; and some did not blink at all. This suggests that autism can affect the processing of sensory information in the cerebellum in different ways.
This work is important because it demonstrates that a form of split-second multisensory learning is generally disrupted by autism genes. If defects in cerebellar learning are present early in life, they could keep autistic children from learning about the world around them, and drive their developing brains off track. Hundreds of autism genes have been found. Linking these genes to a single brain region identifies the cerebellum as an important anatomical target for future diagnosis and intervention.