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Transgenic monkeys could aid study of autism

Genetically modified monkeys that overexpress a gene associated with autism-like behaviours in humans and that can pass the modification to their offspring are reported in Nature this week. The transgenic monkeys and their offspring displayed behavioural changes, including altered social interaction. The findings demonstrate the feasibility of using genetically engineered non-human primates to study neurodevelopmental disorders.

One of the major challenges for the study of autism spectrum disorders is the lack of animal models that can faithfully reproduce symptoms of autism found in human patients. Although much progress has been made with rodent models, non-human-primate models, which could represent better models of these complex disorders, have remained unavailable.

Zilong Qiu and colleagues developed a primate model of MECP2 duplication syndrome, a childhood disorder that shares core symptoms with autism spectrum disorders. They generated eight lentivirus-based transgenic cynomolgus monkeys that overexpress the autism-related human gene MECP2 in the brain. The transgenic monkeys’ cognitive functions were largely normal, but the authors observed various behavioural changes, including increased repetitive motor behaviours, increased anxiety-related behaviours and decreased social interaction. In addition, the authors show germline transmission of the transgene to offspring of one of the male transgenic monkeys; these offspring also showed reduced social interactions when tested in pairs.

The work could contribute to the development of therapeutic strategies to treat the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, the authors suggest.