Mouse models offer indispensable heuristic tools for studying genetic and environmental causes of neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism. Development of useful animal models of complex human behaviors depends not only on extensive knowledge of the human disease, but also on a deep understanding of animal behavior and ethology. Robert and Caroline Blanchard pioneered a number of elegant social paradigms in rodents. Their early work led to systematic delineations of rodent naturalist defensive behaviors, which were proven to be highly useful models of human psychiatric disorders, including fear and anxiety. Their work using the Visible Burrow System to study social stress in rats represented an unprecedented approach to study biological mechanisms of depression. In recent years, their extensive knowledge of mouse behavior and ethology enabled them to quickly become leading figures in the field of behavioral genetics of autism. To commemorate Robert Blanchard's influences on animal models of human psychiatric disorders, here we describe a study conceptualized and led by Mu Yang who was trained as a graduate student in the Blanchard laboratory in the early 2000s. This investigation focuses on social housing in a genetic mouse model of 16p11.2 deletion syndrome. Heterozygous deletions and duplications of a segment containing about 29 genes on human chromosome 16 appear in approximately 0.5-1% of all cases of autism. 16p11.2 deletion syndrome is also associated with intellectual disabilities and speech impairments. Our previous studies showed that a mouse model of 16p11.2 deletion syndrome exhibited deficits in vocalizations and novel object recognition, as compared to wildtype littermate control cagemates. In the spirit of Bob Blanchard's careful attention to the role of social dominance in rodent behaviors, we became interested in the question of whether behavioral outcomes of a mutation differ when mutants are housed in mixed genotype cages, versus housing only mutants together in one group cage, and only wildtype littermates together in another group cage after weaning. 16p11.2 deletion presented a particularly good model organism to investigate this question, because the heterozygotes are smaller than their wildtype littermates, and may therefore become subordinate to their larger cagemates. Wildtype and heterozygotes were housed with cagemates of the same genotype (same-genotype cage) or with cagemates of the opposite genotype (mixed-genotype cage). Current results replicated social vocalization and object recognition deficits that we previously found in heterozygotes living in mixed-genotype cages. In contrast, heterozygotes that lived in same-genotype cages emitted normal numbers of vocalizations during male-female interactions, and displayed normal novel object recognition, indicating that the deletion per se was not sufficient to cause cognitive or social deficits. Social approach, same-sex social interaction, anxiety-related behavior, depression-related behavior, and open field exploration were not different between genotypes, and were not affected by housing in mixed versus in same-genotype cages. These findings suggest that elements of the home cage social environment could interact with genotype to impact aspects of disease phenotypes. Current findings are discussed as potentially reflecting behavioral deficits resulted from social stress, as inspired by a seminal paper by Bob and Caroline Blanchard .
Yang, M., Lewis, F., Foley, G., & Crawley, J. N. (2015). In tribute to Bob Blanchard: Divergent behavioral phenotypes of 16p11.2 deletion mice reared in same-genotype versus mixed-genotype cages. Physiology and Behavior, 146, 16–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.04.023