Autism is a complex spectrum of disorders characterized by core behavioral deficits in social interaction, communication, repetitive stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests. Autism frequently presents with additional cognitive symptoms, including attentional deficits and intellectual disability. Preclinical models are important tools for studying the behavioral domains and biological underpinnings of autism, and potential treatment targets. The inbred BTBR T+tf/J (BTBR) mouse strain has been used as an animal model of core behavioral deficits in autism. BTBR mice exhibit repetitive behaviors and deficits in sociability and communication, but other aspects of their cognitive phenotype, including attentional performance, are not well characterized. We examined the attentional abilities of BTBR mice in the 5-choice serial reaction time task (5-CSRTT) using an automated touchscreen testing apparatus. The 5-CSRTT is an analogue of the human continuous performance task of attention, and so both the task and apparatus have translational relevance to human touchscreen cognitive testing. We also measured basal extracellular levels of a panel of neurotransmitters within the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region critically important for performing the 5-CSRTT. We found that BTBR mice have increased impulsivity, defined as an inability to withhold responding, and decreased motivation, as compared to C57Bl/6J mice. Both of these features characterize attentional deficit disorders in humans. BTBR mice also display decreased accuracy in detecting short stimuli, lower basal levels of extracellular acetylcholine and higher levels of kynurenic acid within the prefrontal cortex. Intact cholinergic transmission in prefrontal cortex is required for accurate performance of the 5-CSRTT, consequently this cholinergic deficit may underlie less accurate performance in BTBR mice. Based on our findings that BTBR mice have attentional impairments and alterations in a key neural substrate of attention, we propose that they may be valuable for studying mechanisms for treatment of cognitive dysfunction in individuals with attention deficits and autism. © 2013 McTighe et al.
McTighe, S. M., Neal, S. J., Lin, Q., Hughes, Z. A., & Smith, D. G. (2013). The BTBR Mouse Model of Autism Spectrum Disorders Has Learning and Attentional Impairments and Alterations in Acetylcholine and Kynurenic Acid in Prefrontal Cortex. PLoS ONE, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0062189