The current study examined the neurochemical mechanisms and neuroanatomical changes underlying coexisting behavioral effects associated with chronic-stress-induced alterations in serotonin (5HT) neurons. Chronic unpredictable stress (CUS) to adult male rats produced depression-like changes with cognitive dysfunction and selective cell death in the interfascicular nucleus of the dorsal raphe (DRif), resulting in decreased 5HTergic innervation of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Twenty-one days of CUS decreased basal plasma levels of corticosterone and produced a shorter latency to immobility and longer durations of immobility in the force-swim test that persisted for 1 month after CUS. Deficits in acquisition, recall, perseveration, and reversal learning were evident 1 month after CUS. MK801 treatment during CUS blocked the changes in the forced-swim test and deficits in memory recall. These behavioral changes were associated with terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL)-positive soma and the eventual loss of 5HT neurons in the DRif and its projections to the mPFC as evidenced by fewer labeled cells in the DRif after retrograde tracer injections into the mPFC of stressed rats. Similar to the effects of MK801 on behavior, MK801 pretreatment during stress blocked the CUS-induced decreases in 5HT soma within the DRif and its projections to the mPFC. Finally, the depression-like behaviors were blocked by acute injection of the 5HT2A/C agonist (-)-2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine hydrochloride into the mPFC before forced-swim testing. These results identify a cause and mechanism of 5HTergic dysfunction of the mPFC and associated mood and cognitive behaviors.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Chronic stress causes persistent mood and cognitive changes typically associated with dysregulated serotonin (5HT) transmission in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), but the cause of this dysregulation is unknown. Prior studies have focused on 5HTergic terminals in this region, but this study shows that chronic stress causes NMDA-receptor-dependent and subregion-specific cell death of 5HT neurons in the dorsal raphe. The consequent decreased 5HT innervation of the mPFC was associated with mood and cognitive changes that persisted long after the termination of stress. These findings identify a mechanism of subregion-selective death of 5HT neurons in the dorsal raphe, a defined neuroanatomical pathway, and a behavioral phenotype that mirror stress-associated diseases such as major depressive disorder.
The mesolimbic dopamine pathway receives inputs from numerous regions of the brain as part of a neural system that detects rewarding stimuli and coordinates a behavioral response. The capacity to simultaneously map and molecularly define the components of this complex multisynaptic circuit would thus advance our understanding of the determinants of motivated behavior. To accomplish this, we have constructed pseudorabies virus (PRV) strains in which viral propagation and fluorophore expression are activated only after exposure to Cre recombinase. Once activated in Cre-expressing neurons, the virus serially labels chains of presynaptic neurons. Dual injection of GFP and mCherry tracing viruses simultaneously illuminates nigrostriatal and mesolimbic circuitry and shows no overlap, demonstrating that PRV transmission is confined to synaptically connected neurons. To molecularly profile mesolimbic dopamine neurons and their presynaptic inputs, we injected Cre-conditional GFP virus into the NAc of (anti-GFP) nanobody-L10 transgenic mice and immunoprecipitated translating ribosomes from neurons infected after retrograde tracing. Analysis of purified RNA revealed an enrichment of transcripts expressed in neurons of the dorsal raphe nuclei and lateral hypothalamus that project to the mesolimbic dopamine circuit. These studies identify important inputs to the mesolimbic dopamine pathway and further show that PRV circuit-directed translating ribosome affinity purification can be broadly applied to identify molecularly defined neurons comprising complex, multisynaptic circuits.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The mesolimbic dopamine circuit integrates signals from key brain regions to detect and respond to rewarding stimuli. To further define this complex multisynaptic circuit, we constructed a panel of Cre recombinase-activated pseudorabies viruses (PRVs) that enabled retrograde tracing of neural inputs that terminate on Cre-expressing neurons. Using these viruses and Retro-TRAP (translating ribosome affinity purification), a previously reported molecular profiling method, we developed a novel technique that provides anatomic as well as molecular information about the neural components of polysynaptic circuits. We refer to this new method as PRV-Circuit-TRAP (PRV circuit-directed TRAP). Using it, we have identified major projections to the mesolimbic dopamine circuit from the lateral hypothalamus and dorsal raphe nucleus and defined a discrete subset of transcripts expressed in these projecting neurons, which will allow further characterization of this important pathway. Moreover, the method we report is general and can be applied to the study of other neural circuits.