'Autistic' mice offer hope of genetic clues


By Devin Powell A strain of noisy laboratory mice shows all the signs of autism that are used to diagnose human beings, according to new research. The mice may help scientists study the complicated genetics of autism. Maria Luisa Scattoni of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and colleagues, separated baby mice of different laboratory strains from their mothers. The pups, which had not yet opened their eyes, made noises aimed to bring mom back. These ultrasonic sounds – too low for the human ear to detect – come in 10 different types, from clicking to pure tones. Most mice in the study used all 10 categories. But the vocabulary of one strain, called BTBR, was limited to four calls, focusing on “harmonics” that contain multiple, simultaneous sounds – like guitar strings plucked together. BTBR mice also called louder and for longer periods of time. “This is similar to what others have found in autistic infants,” says Scattoni. Listen to a recording of a BTBR mouse here. Language problems in human babies with autism lead them to hum and grunt for extended periods, and squeal loudly and inappropriately. These babies may also cry for extended periods. Previous studies from the same group have shown that these mice also show the two other symptoms normally used to diagnose human autism – repetitive behavior and restricted social interaction. “BTBR is the first [mouse strain] to have all three,” says Scattoni. Most mice used to study autism are transgenic – their DNA contains an extra human gene thought to be involved in the condition. But BTBR mice have been used in laboratories for years, and may provide a more naturalistic tool to study the interaction of the 10 to 15 genes thought to be involved in autism, says Mady Hornig of Columbia University in New York. “We can begin to understand how the genetic mechanisms may all be working together,” she says. Journal reference: PLoS ONE (DOI:
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