The serotonin (5-HT) transporter (5-HTT) regulates 5-HT availability at the synapse. Low or null 5-HTT expression results in increased 5-HT availability and has been reported to produce anxious and depressive phenotypes, although this remains highly controversial despite two decades of investigation. Paradoxically, SSRIs, which also increase 5-HT availability, reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. An emerging network plasticity theory of 5-HT function argues that, rather than influencing mood directly, increasing 5-HT availability enhances learning about emotionally-significant events but evidence supporting this theory is inconclusive. Here, we tested one key prediction of this theory: that increased 5-HT availability enhances aversive learning. In experiment 1, we trained 5-HTT knock-out mice (5-HTTKO), which have increased 5-HT availability, and wild-type mice (WT) on an aversive discrimination learning task in which one auditory cue was paired with an aversive outcome whereas a second auditory cue was not. Simultaneously we recorded neuronal and hemodynamic responses from the amygdala, a brain region necessary for aversive learning. 5-HTTKO mice exhibited superior discrimination learning than WTs, and had stronger theta-frequency neuronal oscillations and larger amygdala hemodynamic responses to the aversive cues, which predicted the extent of learning. In experiment 2, we found that acute SSRI treatment (in naive non-transgenic mice), given specifically before fear learning sessions, enhanced subsequent fear memory recall. Collectively, our data demonstrate that reducing 5-HTT activity (and thereby increasing 5-HT availability) enhances amygdala responsivity to aversive events and facilitates learning for emotionally-relevant cues. Our findings support the network plasticity theory of 5-HT function.
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