What happens when mice become autistic

In search of cures for autism, scientists have often used mice as a model. Some of the rodents display behaviors typical of human autism, and researchers use these mice as test subjects for experimental treatments. But now a group of researchers has figured out how to genetically engineer autistic mice, which could bring us closer than ever to understanding the genetic mechanisms underlying the condition. New Scientist reports:

Rather than simply examining existing strains to identify mice with autistic-like behaviour, [neuroscientist Daniel Geschwind and colleagues] engineered mice to lack a gene called Cntnap2, which had already been implicated in autism. Cntnap2 is the largest gene on the genome, clocking in at 2.5 million bases, and is responsible for regulating brain circuits involved in language and speech.

Geschwind was initially sceptical that the modified mice would display the behaviour typical of autism in humans, because the neural pathways in the two species are thought to be fairly different. "One has to be cautious," he says. "What is an autistic mouse going to look like?"

Surprisingly, he says, it turns out to be a lot like a human with autism. "Knockout" mice lacking the gene were less vocal than their genetically unaltered littermates, and less social as well. They also showed repetitive behaviour such as grooming which was "wild almost to the point of self-injury", says Geschwind. These three symptoms are the ones normally used to diagnose autism in humans.

The mice responded well to some drugs used to treat autism, and the researchers believe that studying the brains of these autistic mice could lead to better treatments in future.

via New Scientist

Photo by Sascha Burkard via Shutterstock