Monkeys with human gene show signs of autism

monkey mom and baby

The offspring of monkeys carrying human genes associated with autismlike symptoms had abnormal social behavior, researchers found. 

Yan-Hong Nie

Monkeys harboring a human gene associated with autism pace in circles, are anxious and don’t socialize normally, scientists report January 25 in Nature. These macaques may reveal insights into how autism affects the human brain, study coauthor Zilong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai said in a press briefing January 21.  

Qiu and colleagues engineered monkeys to mimic having a rare autismlike disorder caused by extra copies of the MeCP2 gene. In humans, mutations in that gene cause Rett syndrome, a severe developmental disorder that can come with autistic symptoms (SN: 10/3/15, p. 22).

The monkeyed-with monkeys circled their cages repetitively, anxiously grunted when a person looked at them, and spent less time sitting near another monkey than monkeys without the extra gene. Offspring of the monkeys also showed social deficits. The researchers plan on imaging the brains of these monkeys to find neural pathways that are involved in autism.  

During a 20-minute observation period, a monkey carrying human MeCP2 genes moved in circles around its cage (right, movements traced in red) more than a normal monkey (left). Z. Liu et al/Nature 2016
Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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