Theranostics 2021; 11(19):9296-9310. doi:10.7150/thno.60531 This issue

Research Paper

Upregulated NMDAR-mediated GABAergic transmission underlies autistic-like deficits in Htr3a knockout mice

Lang Huang1,2#, Jing Wang1,2#, Guanmei Liang1,2,3#, Yue Gao1,2,3#, Shi-Yang Jin2, Jian Hu2, Xiaoxue Yang1, Jianpei Lao1,2,3, Jinfa Chen1,2,3, Zhou-Cai Luo2, Cuixia Fan1,4, Li Xiong1,2, Xinhong Zhu2, Tian-Ming Gao2, Mei Zhong1✉, Xinping Yang1,2,3✉

1. Center for Genetics and Developmental Systems Biology, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Nanfang Hospital, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou 510515, China.
2. Key Laboratory of Mental Health of the Ministry of Education, Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Center for Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence, Guangdong Key Laboratory of Psychiatric Disorders, Collaborative Innovation Center for Brain Science, Department of Neurobiology, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou 510515, China.
3. Department of Bioinformatics, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou 510515, China.
4. Institute of Neuroscience and Department of Neurology, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University, Guangzhou 510260, China.
#These authors contributed equally to this work.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Huang L, Wang J, Liang G, Gao Y, Jin SY, Hu J, Yang X, Lao J, Chen J, Luo ZC, Fan C, Xiong L, Zhu X, Gao TM, Zhong M, Yang X. Upregulated NMDAR-mediated GABAergic transmission underlies autistic-like deficits in Htr3a knockout mice. Theranostics 2021; 11(19):9296-9310. doi:10.7150/thno.60531. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Mutations in serotonin pathway genes, especially the serotonergic receptor subunit gene HTR3A, are associated with autism. However, the association of HTR3A deficiency with autism and the underlying mechanisms remain unknown.

Methods: The Htr3a knockout (KO) mice were generated using transcription activator-like effector nuclease technology. Various behavior tests, including social interaction, social approach task, olfactory habituation/dishabituation, self-grooming, novel object recognition, contextual fear conditioning, elevated plus maze, open field and seizure susceptibility, were performed to assess the phenotypes. Transcriptome sequencing was carried out to search for molecular network and pathways underlying the phenotypes. Electrophysiological recordings, immunoblotting, immunofluorescence staining, immunoprecipitation, and quantitative real-time PCR were performed to verify the potential mechanisms. The N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) antagonist memantine was used to treat the KO mice for rescuing the phenotypes.

Results: The Htr3a KO mouse model showed three phenotypic domains: autistic-like behaviors (including impaired social behavior, cognitive deficits, and increased repetitive self-grooming), impaired memory, and attenuated susceptibility to pentylenetetrazol-induced seizures. We observed enhanced action potential-driven γ-aminobutyric acid-ergic (GABAergic) transmission in pyramidal neurons and decreased excitatory/inhibitory (E/I) ratio using the patch-clamp recording. Transcriptome sequencing on the hippocampus revealed the converged pathways of the dysregulated molecular networks underlying three phenotypic domains with upregulation of NMDAR. We speculated that Htr3a KO promotes an increase in GABA release through NMDAR upregulation. The electrophysiological recordings on hippocampal parvalbumin-positive (PV+) interneuron revealed increased NMDAR current and NMDAR-dependent excitability. The NMDAR antagonist memantine could rescue GABAergic transmission in the hippocampus and ameliorate autistic-like behaviors of the KO mice.

Conclusion: Our data indicated that upregulation of the NMDAR in PV+ interneurons may play a critical role in regulating GABAergic input to pyramidal neurons and maybe involve in the pathogenesis of autism associated with HTR3A deficiency. Therefore, we suggest that the NMDAR system could be considered potential therapeutic target for autism.

Keywords: Htr3a, autism, transcriptome, NMDAR, interactome