Viral vector mediated expression of mutant huntingtin in the dorsal raphe produces disease-related neuropathology but not depressive-like behaviors in wildtype mice

Mark Pitzer, Jordan Lueras, Anna Warden, Sydney Weber, Jodi McBride

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Huntington's disease (HD) is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by a mutation in the HTT gene (mHTT) encoding the protein huntingtin. An expansion in the gene's CAG repeat length renders a misfolded, dysfunctional protein with an abnormally long glutamine (Q) stretch at the N terminus that often incorporates into inclusion bodies and leads to neurodegeneration in many regions of the brain. HD is characterized by motor and cognitive decline as well as mood disorders, with depression being particularly common. Approximately 40% of the HD population suffers from depressive symptoms. Because these symptoms often manifest a decade or more prior to the knowledge that the person is at risk for the disease, a portion of the early depression in HD appears to be a consequence of the pathology arising from expression of the mutant gene. While the depression in HD patients is often treated with serotonin agonists, there is scant experimental evidence that the depression in HD responds well to these serotonin treatments or in a similar manner to how non-HD depression tends to respond. Additionally, at very early sub-threshold depression levels, abnormal changes in several neuronal populations are already detectable in HD patients, suggesting that a variety of brain structures may be involved. Taken together, the serotonin system is a viable candidate. However, at present there is limited evidence of the precise nuclei or circuits that play a role in HD depression. With this in mind, the current study was designed to control for the widespread brain neuropathology that occurs in HD and in transgenic mouse models of HD and focuses specifically on the influence of the midbrain dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). The DRN provides the majority of the serotonin to the forebrain and exhibits cell loss in non-HD depression. Therefore, we employed a viral vector delivery system to investigate whether the over-expression of mHTT in the DRN's ventral sub-nuclei alone is sufficient to produce depressive-like behaviors. Wildtype mice were injected with an adeno-associated virus (AAV2/1) encoding HTT containing either a pathogenic (N171-82Q) or control (N171-16Q) CAG repeat length into the ventral DRN and depressive-like behaviors and motor behaviors were assessed for 12 weeks post-surgery. Quantitative PCR and immunohistochemistry (IHC) verified positive transduction in the ventral aspects of the DRN, including the ventral sub-nucleus (DRv) and interfascicular sub-nucleus (DRif). IHC demonstrated microgliosis in and around the injection site and mHTT-positive inclusions in serotonin-producing neurons and a small percentage of astrocytes in animals injected with N171-82Q compared to controls. Moreover, N171-82Q injected mice showed a 75% reduction in cells that stained positive for the serotonin synthesis enzyme, tryptophan hydroxylase-2 (TPH2) compared to controls (p<0.05). Despite mHTT-mediated pathology in the DRv and DRif, no significant changes in depressive-like behavior were detected. Consequently, we conclude that 12 weeks of N171-82Q expression in the ventral sub-nuclei of the DRN of wildtype mice causes characteristic disease-related cellular neuropathology but is not sufficient to elicit depressive-like behaviors. Ongoing studies are investigating whether a larger injection volume that transfects a larger percentage of the DRN and/or a longer time course of mHTT expression might elicit depressive-like behaviors. Moreover, mHTT expression in other regions of the brain, such as the hippocampal dentate gyrus and/or the frontal cortex might be necessary to elicit HD depression. Together, these results may prove helpful in addressing which therapeutic and/or pharmacological strategies might be most efficacious when treating depressive symptomology in patients suffering from HD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)177-190
Number of pages14
JournalBrain research
StatePublished - May 22 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Depression
  • Huntington's disease
  • TPH2
  • Tryptophan hydroxylase-2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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