Designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs (DREADDs) are novel and powerful tools to investigate discrete neuronal populations in the brain. We have used DREADDs to stimulate degenerating neurons in a Down syndrome (DS) model, Ts65Dn mice. Individuals with DS develop Alzheimer's disease (AD) neuropathology and have elevated risk for dementia starting in their 30s and 40s. Individuals with DS often exhibit working memory deficits coupled with degeneration of the locus coeruleus (LC) norepinephrine (NE) neurons. It is thought that LC degeneration precedes other AD-related neuronal loss, and LC noradrenergic integrity is important for executive function, working memory, and attention. Previous studies have shown that LC-enhancing drugs can slow the progression of AD pathology, including amyloid aggregation, oxidative stress, and inflammation. We have shown that LC degeneration in Ts65Dn mice leads to exaggerated memory loss and neuronal degeneration. We used a DREADD, hM3Dq, administered via adeno-associated virus into the LC under a synthetic promoter, PRSx8, to selectively stimulate LC neurons by exogenous administration of the inert DREADD ligand clozapine-N-oxide. DREADD stimulation of LC-NE enhanced performance in a novel object recognition task and reduced hyperactivity in Ts65Dn mice, without significant behavioral effects in controls. To confirm that the noradrenergic transmitter system was responsible for the enhanced memory function, the NE prodrug l-threo-dihydroxyphenylserine was administered in Ts65Dn and normosomic littermate control mice, and produced similar behavioral results. Thus, NE stimulation may prevent memory loss in Ts65Dn mice, and may hold promise for treatment in individuals with DS and dementia.

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Published in Journal of Neuroscience, v. 35, no. 4, p. 1343-1353.

© 2015 the authors

The authors grant the Society for Neuroscience an exclusive license to publish their work for the first 6 months. After 6 months the work becomes available to the public to copy, distribute, or display under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

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This work was supported by Grant DSADIIP-13-284845 from the Alzheimer’s Association and a grant from the NIH (AG012122).