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Of Mice and Men
Just how closely must mouse models replicate the known features of human disorders to be accepted as useful for mechanistic and therapeutic studies? Soliman et al. (p. 863, published online 14 January) compared mice that vary only in their allelic composition at one position within the gene encoding brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) with humans exhibiting the same range of allelic variation. Individuals (mice and humans) carrying the allele that codes for a methionine-containing variant of BDNF retained a fearful response to a threatening stimulus even after its removal in comparison to those with the valine variant. Furthermore, in both cases, this linkage was mediated by diminished activity in the ventral-medial region of the prefrontal cortex. This deficit in extinction learning may contribute to differential responses to extinction-based therapies for anxiety disorders.
Mouse models are useful for studying genes involved in behavior, but whether they are relevant to human behavior is unclear. Here, we identified parallel phenotypes in mice and humans resulting from a common single-nucleotide polymorphism in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene, which is involved in anxiety-related behavior. An inbred genetic knock-in mouse strain expressing the variant BDNF recapitulated the phenotypic effects of the human polymorphism. Both were impaired in extinguishing a conditioned fear response, which was paralleled by atypical frontoamygdala activity in humans. Thus, this variant BDNF allele may play a role in anxiety disorders showing impaired learning of cues that signal safety versus threat and in the efficacy of treatments that rely on extinction mechanisms, such as exposure therapy.