Impaired Pavlovian predictive learning between temporally phasic but not static events in autism-model strain mice

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Abstract

Autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) is a multi-aspect developmental disorder characterised by various social and non-social behavioural abnormalities. Using BTBR T+ tf mouse strain (BTBR), a promising animal model displaying a number of behavioural and neural characteristics associated with ASD, we tested the hypothesis that at the core of various symptoms of ASD lies a fundamental deficit in predictive learning between events. In five experiments, we conducted a variety of Pavlovian conditioning tasks, some requiring the establishment of associations between temporally phasic events and others involving static events. BTBR mice were impaired in the acquisition of conditioned magazine approach responses with an appetitive unconditioned stimulus (US) (Experiment 1) and conditioned freezing with an electric shock US (Experiment 2). Both of these tasks had temporally phasic conditioned stimuli (CSs). Conversely, these mice showed normal acquisition of conditioned place preference (CPP), whether the US was a systemic injection of methamphetamine (Experiment 3A) or the presence of food (Experiment 3B). Experiment 4 showed normal acquisition of conditioned taste aversion (CTA) to a flavour-taste compound CS, although BTBR mice still exhibited an abnormal stimulus selection when learning for each element of the compound CS was assessed separately. Experiment 5 revealed a weaker latent inhibition of CTA in BTBR mice. The BTBR mouse's impaired predictive learning between phasic events and intact associations between static events are discussed in terms of dysfunctional contingency-based, but not contiguity-based learning, which may accompany abnormal selective attention to relevant cues. We propose that such dysfunctional contingency learning mechanisms may underlie the development of various social and non-social symptoms of ASD.

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