Beijing | Chinese researchers have successfully induced human autism in monkeys in a bid to develop treatment for the rare syndrome that impairs social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication.
Neuroscientist Zilong Qiu of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences said his team has generated more than a dozen monkeys with a genetic error that in human children causes a rare syndrome whose symptoms include mental retardation and autistic features, such as repetitive speech and restricted interests.
Autism refers to any of a spectrum of intellectual and behavioral disorders whose genetic underpinnings are starting to be unraveled. The altered monkeys displayed shared psychiatric symptoms, including pacing in circles and interacting less with other monkeys. They became stressed more easily when researchers stared them in the eyes.
The abnormal monkeys would grunt, coo, and scream more often if challenged in this way, according to Qiu’s team, and two became severely sick in ways that echoed the problems human children with the gene defect.
The monkeys show very similar behavior human autism patients, Qiu was quoted as saying by Nature. Years of studies with mice suffering from autism-like disorders have provided disappointingly few leads on how to solve the problem in people.
But mice have very different brains from our own, he said. He says scientists would now be able to study what brain networks had been disrupted, as well as try out treatments, such as deep-brain stimulation. Qiu says his group would also attempt to reverse the symptoms it created by erasing the genetic error in live animals.
That could be done using new genome-editing technologies, he said. Genetically altered monkeys have been reported previously, including at least one animal in China with a defect in an autism gene.
However, Qiu’s report appears to be the first time that researchers have generated enough animals to observe stereotypical behavioral changes, says Afonso Silva, a scientist who works with transgenic monkeys at the National Institutes of Health. Some scientists questioned whether the model developed in China was close enough to autism to really shed any light on human disease.
I think we need to be cautious calling this a model…it does not quite accomplish that, said Huda Zoghbi, whose lab at the Baylor College of Medicine discovered in 1999 that damage to the MECP2 gene causes Rett syndrome, a form of autism affecting girls.
Although the monkeys exhibited common behaviors, like repetitive circling in their cages, Zoghbi says these are not the same as those displayed in human children. More typical symptoms like seizures were absent, she said, while the monkeys circling doesnt have an analog in humans.
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