Theses Doctoral

Early Life Adversity Causes Fear Generalization by Impairing Serotonergic Modulation of the Ventral Dentate Gyrus

Dixon, Rushell Sherone

Early life adversity (ELA) produces long lasting developmental changes to the postnatal brain, increasing predisposition to a number of physical and psychiatric disorders. The mechanisms through which ELA is able to create lasting detrimental changes to neuronal development remains unclear.

This thesis tested the hypothesis that increases in fear generalization, a common symptom in psychiatric disorders, follows ELA exposure in age dependent and sexually dimorphic ways in alignment with the findings of clinical studies. The effects of ELA often impact fear circuitry and we confirmed, using electrophysiology and tissue imaging, that 5-HT circuitry from the median raphe nucleus (MRN), integral to fear response, was impaired following ELA.

Using a transgenic mouse model that allows for modulation of serotonergic release, we showed that circumventing serotonergic pathways disrupted by ELA and increasing whole brain 5-HT release was enough to rescue hippocampal dependent fear responses and fear generalization. Involvement of the hippocampus in ELA effects, particularly the ventral dentate gyrus (vDG), in fear overgeneralization was confirmed as hyperactivity in thevDG following exposure to novel contexts was rescued by increased 5-HT release. In addition to ELA-induced hyperactivity of the vDG, known to potentiate stress susceptibility, I demonstrated that ELA resulted in an increase in passive coping strategies, HPA axis dysfunction and elevated stress hormone release. These effects were seen predominantly in adult females and rescued in those with increased 5-HT release.

Together these data suggest that increased predisposition to psychiatric disorders following ELA exposure involves the disruption of fear circuitry regulated by 5-HT activity. Identifying the underlying circuits altered by ELA not only provides insight about disrupted postnatal brain development, but also increases our knowledge of the timeline, trajectory and factors affecting healthy postnatal brain development.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Anacker, Christoph
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 9, 2023