Autism In Mice

What are we to make of this? Scientists have genetically engineered mice whose symptoms closely mimic autism in humans.

Autism is characterized by problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and restricted interests and behaviors. The “autistic mice” showed similar traits.

Unlike ordinary mice, the genetically engineered versions showed little interest in interacting with other mice. While regular mice vocalize when they’re together — especially in response to receiving something highly rewarding such as sugar — the autistic mice stayed quiet. The autistic mice also excessively groomed themselves, suggesting a repetitive behavior.

So is autism genetic? It’s widely accepted that a single gene isn’t to blame for autism, but that a variety of genes and environmental influences play a role. There are inherited traits, it is true. But only about 3% of autism cases are linked to any one gene abnormality.

One thing researchers didn’t find when they engineered their autistic mice were alterations in brain structure that have been associated with autism in humans, such as a temporary increase in brain volume seen in infants and toddlers who go on to receive an autism diagnosis.

Of course, one cannot accept a mouse model as fully representative of the human condition. Mice cannot talk and autism is essentially a breakdown in communication and social interactivity.

The study is published in the Oct. 5, 2011, issue of Science Translational Medicine.