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Effects of mutant huntingtin in oxytocin neurons on non-motor features of Huntington's disease.

BACKGROUND: Early non-motor features including anxiety, depression and altered social cognition are present in Huntington's disease (HD). The underlying neurobiological mechanisms are not known. Oxytocin (OXT) is involved in the regulation of emotion, social cognition, and metabolism and our previous work showed that the OXT system is affected early in HD. The aim of the study was to investigate the potential causal relationship between the selective expression of mutant huntingtin (mHTT) in OXT neurons and the development of non-motor features and neuropathology.

METHODS: To express mHTT only in OXT neurons, we used a novel flex-switch adeno-associated viral vector design to selectively express either mHTT or wild-type HTT in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus using OXT-Cre mice. We also performed a mirror experiment to selectively delete mHTT in OXT neurons using the BACHD mouse model. Mice underwent a battery of behavioural tests to assess psychiatric and social behaviours 3 months post-injection or at 2 months of age, respectively. Post-mortem analyses were performed to assess the effects on the OXT system.

RESULTS: Our results show that selective expression of mHTT in oxytocin neurons was associated with the formation of mHTT inclusions and a 26% reduction of OXT-immunopositive neurons as well as increased anxiety-like behaviours compared to uninjected mice. However, selective deletion of mHTT from OXT neurons alone was not sufficient to alter the metabolic and psychiatric phenotype of the BACHD mice at this early time point.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicate that mHTT expression can exert cell-autonomous toxic effects on oxytocin neurons without affecting the non-motor phenotype at early time points in mice.

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