Ben Rein, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow working in the lab of Dr. Robert Malenka. In his Ph.D. research, Ben investigated cellular and synaptic mechanisms underlying social deficits in various transgenic mouse models of autism spectrum disorder, with specific focus on models of 16p11.2 deletion and duplication. Outside of the lab, Ben runs multiple social media channels as a science communicator, and is the Founder & President of the Aspiring Scientists Coalition, an international organization designed to provide career guidance for students in science.
Doctor of Philosophy, S.U.N.Y. State University at Buffalo (2021)
Bachelor of Science, West Virginia University (2016)
Robert Malenka, Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
Mechanisms of synaptic transmission dysregulation in the prefrontal cortex: pathophysiological implications.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) serves as the chief executive officer of the brain, controlling the highest level cognitive and emotional processes. Its local circuits among glutamatergic principal neurons and GABAergic interneurons, as well as its long-range connections with other brain regions, have been functionally linked to specific behaviors, ranging from working memory to reward seeking. The efficacy of synaptic signaling in the PFC network is profundedly influenced by monoaminergic inputs via the activation of dopamine, adrenergic, or serotonin receptors. Stress hormones and neuropeptides also exert complex effects on the synaptic structure and function of PFC neurons. Dysregulation of PFC synaptic transmission is strongly linked to social deficits, affective disturbance, and memory loss in brain disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer's disease. Critical neural circuits, biological pathways, and molecular players that go awry in these mental illnesses have been revealed by integrated electrophysiological, optogenetic, biochemical, and transcriptomic studies of PFC. Novel epigenetic mechanism-based strategies are proposed as potential avenues of therapeutic intervention for PFC-involved diseases. This review provides an overview of PFC network organization and synaptic modulation, as well as the mechanisms linking PFC dysfunction to the pathophysiology of neurodevelopmental, neuropsychiatric, and neurodegenerative diseases. Insights from the preclinical studies offer the potential for discovering new medical treatments for human patients with these brain disorders.
View details for DOI 10.1038/s41380-021-01092-3
View details for PubMedID 33875802
Synergistic inhibition of histone modifiers produces therapeutic effects in adult Shank3-deficient mice
2021; 11 (1): 99
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder characterized by social deficits and other behavioral abnormalities. Dysregulation of epigenetic processes, such as histone modifications and chromatin remodeling, have been implicated in ASD pathology, and provides a promising therapeutic target for ASD. Haploinsufficiency of the SHANK3 gene is causally linked to ASD, so adult (3-5 months old) Shank3-deficient male mice were used in this drug discovery study. We found that combined administration of the class I histone deacetylase inhibitor Romidepsin and the histone demethylase LSD1 inhibitor GSK-LSD1 persistently ameliorated the autism-like social preference deficits, while each individual drug alone was largely ineffective. Another behavioral abnormality in adult Shank3-deficient male mice, heightened aggression, was also alleviated by administration of the dual drugs. Furthermore, Romidepsin/GSK-LSD1 treatment significantly increased transcriptional levels of NMDA receptor subunits in prefrontal cortex (PFC) of adult Shank3-deficient mice, resulting in elevated synaptic expression of NMDA receptors and the restoration of NMDAR synaptic function in PFC pyramidal neurons. These results have offered a novel pharmacological intervention strategy for ASD beyond early developmental periods.
View details for DOI 10.1038/s41398-021-01233-w
View details for Web of Science ID 000617327100006
View details for PubMedID 33542189
View details for PubMedCentralID PMC7862604
16P11.2 Copy Number Variations and Neurodevelopmental Disorders
TRENDS IN NEUROSCIENCES
2020; 43 (11): 886–901
Copy number variations (CNVs) of the human 16p11.2 genetic locus are associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, and epilepsy. In this review, we delineate genetic information and diverse phenotypes in individuals with 16p11.2 CNVs, and synthesize preclinical findings from transgenic mouse models of 16p11.2 CNVs. Mice with 16p11.2 deletions or duplications recapitulate many core behavioral phenotypes, including social and cognitive deficits, and exhibit altered synaptic function across various brain areas. Mechanisms of transcriptional dysregulation and cortical maldevelopment are reviewed, along with potential therapeutic intervention strategies.
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.tins.2020.09.001
View details for Web of Science ID 000582637600006
View details for PubMedID 32993859
View details for PubMedCentralID PMC7606557
A standardized social preference protocol for measuring social deficits in mouse models of autism
2020; 15 (10): 3464–77
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social communication deficits and other behavioral abnormalities. The three-chamber social preference test is often used to assess social deficits in mouse models of ASD. However, varying and often contradicting phenotypic descriptions of ASD mouse models can be found in the scientific literature, and the substantial variability in the methods used by researchers to assess social deficits in mice could be a contributing factor. Here we describe a standardized three-chamber social preference protocol, which is sensitive and reliable at detecting social preference deficits in several mouse models of ASD. This protocol comprises three phases that can all be completed within 1 d. The test mouse is first habituated to the apparatus containing two empty cups in the side chambers, followed by the pre-test phase in which the mouse can interact with two identical inanimate objects placed in the cups. During the test phase, the mouse is allowed to interact with a social stimulus (an unfamiliar wild-type (WT) mouse) contained in one cup and a novel non-social stimulus contained in the other cup. The protocol is thus designed to assess preference between social and non-social stimuli under conditions of equal salience. The broad implementation of the three-chamber social preference protocol presented here should improve the accuracy and consistency of assessments for social preference deficits associated with ASD and other psychiatric disorders.
View details for DOI 10.1038/s41596-020-0382-9
View details for Web of Science ID 000566859200001
View details for PubMedID 32895524
Reversal of synaptic and behavioral deficits in a 16p11.2 duplication mouse model via restoration of the GABA synapse regulator Npas4
The human 16p11.2 gene locus is a hot spot for copy number variations, which predispose carriers to a range of neuropsychiatric phenotypes. Microduplications of 16p11.2 are associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability (ID), and schizophrenia (SZ). Despite the debilitating nature of 16p11.2 duplications, the underlying molecular mechanisms remain poorly understood. Here we performed a comprehensive behavioral characterization of 16p11.2 duplication mice (16p11.2dp/+) and identified social and cognitive deficits reminiscent of ASD and ID phenotypes. 16p11.2dp/+ mice did not exhibit the SZ-related sensorimotor gating deficits, psychostimulant-induced hypersensitivity, or motor impairment. Electrophysiological recordings of 16p11.2dp/+ mice found deficient GABAergic synaptic transmission and elevated neuronal excitability in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region critical for social and cognitive functions. RNA-sequencing identified genome-wide transcriptional aberrance in the PFC of 16p11.2dp/+ mice, including downregulation of the GABA synapse regulator Npas4. Restoring Npas4 expression in PFC of 16p11.2dp/+ mice ameliorated the social and cognitive deficits and reversed GABAergic synaptic impairment and neuronal hyperexcitability. These findings suggest that prefrontal cortical GABAergic synaptic circuitry and Npas4 are strongly implicated in 16p11.2 duplication pathology, and may represent potential targets for therapeutic intervention in ASD.
View details for DOI 10.1038/s41380-020-0693-9
View details for Web of Science ID 000516342900002
View details for PubMedID 32099100
View details for PubMedCentralID PMC7483162
Diminished social interaction incentive contributes to social deficits in mouse models of autism spectrum disorder
GENES BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR
2020; 19 (1): e12610
One of the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is impaired social interaction. Currently, no pharmacotherapies exist for this symptom due to complex biological underpinnings and distinct genetic models which fail to represent the broad disease spectrum. One convincing hypothesis explaining social deficits in human ASD patients is amotivation, however it is unknown whether mouse models of ASD represent this condition. Here we used two highly trusted ASD mouse models (male Shank3-deficient [Shank3+/ΔC ] mice modeling the monogenic etiology of ASD, and inbred BTBR mice [both male and female] modeling the idiopathic and highly polygenic pathology for ASD) to evaluate the level of motivation to engage in a social interaction. In the behavioral paradigms utilized, a social stimulus was placed in the open arm of the elevated plus maze (EPM), or the light compartment of the light-dark box (LDB). To engage in a social interaction, mice were thus required to endure innately aversive conditions (open areas, height, and/or light). In the modified EPM paradigm, both Shank3+/ΔC and BTBR mice demonstrated decreased open-arm engagement with a social stimulus but not a novel object, suggesting reduced incentive to engage in a social interaction in these models. However, these deficits were not expressed under the less severe aversive pressures of the LDB. Collectively, we show that ASD mouse models exhibit diminished social interaction incentive, and provide a new investigation strategy facilitating the study of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying social reward and motivation deficits in neuropsychiatric disorders.
View details for DOI 10.1111/gbb.12610
View details for Web of Science ID 000494581700001
View details for PubMedID 31602784
Chemogenetic Activation of Prefrontal Cortex Rescues Synaptic and Behavioral Deficits in a Mouse Model of 16p11.2 Deletion Syndrome
JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE
2018; 38 (26): 5939–48
Microdeletion of the human 16p11.2 gene locus has been linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability and confers risk for a number of other neurodevelopmental deficits. Transgenic mice carrying 16p11.2 deletion (16p11+/-) display phenotypes reminiscent of those in human patients with 16p11.2 deletion syndrome, but the molecular mechanisms and treatment strategies for these phenotypes remain unknown. In this study, we have found that both male and female 16p11+/- mice exhibit deficient NMDA receptor (NMDAR) function in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a brain region critical for high-level "executive" functions. Elevating the activity of mPFC pyramidal neurons with a CaMKII-driven Gq-DREADD (Gq-coupled designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs) led to the significant increase of NR2B subunit phosphorylation and the restoration of NMDAR function, as well as the amelioration of cognitive and social impairments in 16p11+/- mice. These results suggest that NMDAR hypofunction in PFC may contribute to the pathophysiology of 16p11.2 deletion syndrome and that restoring PFC activity is sufficient to rescue the behavioral deficits.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The 16p11.2 deletion syndrome is strongly associated with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. Using a mouse model carrying the 16p11.2 deletion, 16p11+/-, we identified NMDA receptor hypofunction in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Elevating the activity of PFC pyramidal neurons with a chemogenetic tool, Gq-DREADD, led to the restoration of NMDA receptor function and the amelioration of cognitive and social impairments in 16p11+/- mice. These results have revealed a novel route for potential therapeutic intervention of 16p11.2 deletion syndrome.
View details for DOI 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0149-18.2018
View details for Web of Science ID 000438372400011
View details for PubMedID 29853627
View details for PubMedCentralID PMC6021990
Evaluation of an avatar-based training program to promote suicide prevention awareness in a college setting
JOURNAL OF AMERICAN COLLEGE HEALTH
2018; 66 (5): 401–11
Training programs exist that prepare college students, faculty, and staff to identify and support students potentially at risk for suicide. Kognito is an online program that trains users through simulated interactions with virtual humans. This study evaluated Kognito's effectiveness in preparing users to intervene with at-risk students.Training was completed by 2,727 university students, faculty, and staff from April, 2014 through September, 2015.Voluntary and mandatory participants at a land-grant university completed Kognito modules designed for higher education, along with pre- and post-assessments.All modules produced significant gains in reported Preparedness, Likelihood, and Self-Efficacy in intervening with troubled students. Despite initial disparities in reported abilities, after training participants reported being similarly capable of assisting at-risk students, including LGBTQ and veteran students.Kognito training appears to be effective, on a large scale, in educating users to act in a facilitative role for at-risk college students.
View details for DOI 10.1080/07448481.2018.1432626
View details for Web of Science ID 000435334700008
View details for PubMedID 29461940