What Can We Learn About Autism Through Mice and Monkeys?

There have been hundreds of tests on animals regarding autism, very few — if any — of which actually make it to the public eye. This might be because animal testing is distasteful to the masses, and it’s hard to listen to the benefit when you are distracted by the harm to animals. However, we can learn something from these studies, and it’s actually really interesting.

I want to give you an extract of two scientific journals I was reading today. The first one will show how researchers at Stanford discovered a way to “cure” some symptoms of autism in their mice. The second one shows how monkeys are being used to more clearly understand autism genetics.

Stanford researchers “cure” autism symptoms in mice

This information is extracted from this scientific journal. You can try to analyze the journal yourself, but it’s not an easy read. It is published by Science Translational Medicine, and its senior author is a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, Karl Deisseroth.

To give you a little insight into the study in easily-understandable terms, there are neurons in your brain that are responsible for sending “exciting” or “inhibiting” signals. This study (performed on mice that were genetically modified to display autistic symptoms like antisocial behavior) claims that it has found proof that it is these “exciting” and “inhibiting” neurons are not being correctly balanced in the case of autism.

In order to test their theory, they lowered the balance of these neurons in the brain so that less of the “exciting” neurons were firing — or more of the “inhibiting” neurons were firing. Once the neurons were properly balanced, the mice displayed a decrease in hyperactivity when alone and an increase in proper social behavior when in groups.

Why is this important to us? first of all, it takes us a step closer to real treatments for at least some symptoms of autism. This treatment is, for now, just a distant idea, but eventually, willing patients may see similar treatments available in the future.

A more in-depth article examining this study can be found here.

How monkeys in China teach us about autism genetics

Although there have been some interesting studies regarding social interaction in mice, the problem with mice is: mice don’t act very much like people. This problem is partially solved by switching your test subjects from mice, to monkeys.

Monkeys are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom genetically; therefore, they act like us more than any other animal in social situations. It’s easier for social psychologists to analyze autistic behavior in a monkey than it would be to observe in a mouse. The problem with this is the ethical issues it presents. Would Americans really allow scientists to genetically modify a baby monkey to have autism?

Thankfully, (?) this isn’t as big of an issue in China, where researchers have already done it. The researchers isolated just one gene that is strongly associated with autistic behaviors such as the ones addressed by the last journal, repetitive and antisocial behavior. This gene is called MECP2, and it is linked to a malfunction where multiple copies are found in an autistic individual, or a mutation of the gene is present. Once isolated, the researchers then injected the gene into the egg of a macaque which was subsequently fertilized. The result? Autistic monkeys.

This research has been exciting because they can now examine more fully how, and where, this gene affects the brain of its carrier. They can more closely examine what goes wrong with the gene when it is passed on to offspring and much more. There are still some kinks to work through, and obviously some questionable ethics, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

This study can be found here, and an article related to the study can be found here for more information.



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