Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

New mouse models of autism highlight need for standardized tests

By Sarah C P Williams

nm1111-1324-I1.jpgMost laboratory mice, when meeting new cagemates, will sniff the strangers thoroughly. But the mice in Matthew Anderson’s lab instead sit alone, licking their paws repetitively. They ignore other mice, avoid new toys and rarely make noise. Taken together, the abnormalities closely resemble the behavioral symptoms seen in people with autism, a disorder that has been proven difficult to accurately recapitulate in animal models—until recently.

“When I first started working on this, I really wondered whether we’d be able to study autism in a mouse,” says Anderson, a neuroscientist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “But these mice act just like you would expect with autism. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Mouse models for autism first started to emerge around ten years ago. And as researchers have discovered more genes linked to the disease, they have continued to generate more mouse models that are collectively providing the field with a window into the brain structure, neuron function and cellular pathways associated with autism, as well as a platform for testing new drugs. But as more models emerge, it has become increasingly clear that the field needs standardized behavioral assays to compare the effects of the different genetic mutations more clearly. “All these mice have been tested in different labs using different paradigms,” says Daniel Geschwind, a neurogeneticist at the University of California–Los Angeles. “People bandy about repetitive behavior, for example, but what some folks call repetitive behavior is different than what others call repetitive behavior.”

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Image: courtesy of Philip Renna/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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