Mice key to understanding the science of autism, UMN researchers say

University researchers hope mice will help them grasp the biology of autism.

by Wesley Hortenbach

Some University of Minnesota researchers are advocating for the increased use of mouse models to provide insight into the biology of autism.

The findings of a study published last month shed light on the reasons autism may be more prevalent in men than in women, and prompted the experts’ calls for more frequent use of mouse models. Scientists don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the genetics of autism spectrum disorders and hope the mouse models will improve perception of the disorders

“Obviously, mice don’t have autism,” Nicola Grissom, study author and assistant professor in the psychology department. “But by making a genetic change, we can replicate it and make a mouse model to study.”

In humans, the deletion of a certain gene is associated with autism. The study published last month found that male mice who don’t have this autism-associated gene showed abnormal learning behavior — a symptom of autism. 

Unlike most autism-related mouse research, this study examined both male and female mice. This helps scientists identify aspects of the disorder like vulnerability by gender, which is important in disorders with a strong male bias like autism, Grissom said. For every two females diagnosed with autism, nine males are diagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Diagnosing autism spectrum disorders can be difficult, since there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorder, according to the CDC. 

While scientists have identified some genetic similarities among people with autism, psychiatrists mostly rely on behavioral symptoms for diagnosis, Grissom said.

Grissom’s lab uses mice and touchscreens to better understand the neurology of autism. They test mice’s willpower and habitual actions, since challenges with those behaviors are often associated with the autism spectrum, she said. By understanding the molecular factors impacting these skills, scientists may learn about neurological differences and find other therapeutic options, she said. 

Mice also present benefits as models in terms of practicality for research.

“When it comes to animals, we have an advantage because you can be more invasive and access the brain easier,” said Suma Jacob, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the University’s Autism Research Program. “Mice also age faster than humans, making them an excellent model.”

The lab examines the science of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, like ADHD.

“We know [autism] is genetic, but don’t know exactly which elements are involved or the circuitry behind it,” said Amy Esler, assistant professor of pediatrics and section head of the University’s Autism Spectrum & Neurodevelopmental Disorder Clinic.

The more information researchers have about the internal circuitry of autism, the better they can assess intervention methods.

“Another benefit of an improved understanding of autism is the ability for people on the spectrum to understand themselves more and not grind their teeth over what’s happening,” Esler said.

The motivation for this type of research comes from a stigma that autism is a frightening disorder, caused in part by the many unknown details behind autism, Grissom said.

“Right now, there are people who refuse to vaccinate their children because they’re more scared of autism than measles,” Grissom said. “My goal isn’t to cure or get rid of autism, but instead to demystify it.”