Thursday, September 29, 2011

Autism induced in mice to help us study the disease

Psychological diseases, like autism, are hard to study in animals, because they can not think in the way we humans do. However, in an effort to create a mouse model to study autism, researchers have discovered that mice lacking a certain gene display a lot of the typical autism symptoms that are found in humans, like repetitive behaviour. In addition, autistic mice were found to be less social and vocal than their wildtype counterparts. Perhaps even more surprisingly, treating the mice with a drug that is also used to treat autism in humans, ameliorated the symptoms.
To create mice with symptoms of autism, scientists knocked out the Cntnap2 gene to render it dysfunctional. These so called knock-out mice are often used to create test animals with a certain disease, in order to study mechanisms and possible new drug targets for human diseases. Cntnap2 was already found to be associated with autism in human patients. When the researchers looked at the brain of autistic mice, they found that certain neuronal patterns look much like those found in autistic people, further proving that these knock-out mice provide a suitable model to study the disease. In addition, the mice also suffered from epilepsy, something which is commonly associated with autism in humans.

Mice that lack the Cntnap2 gene were treated with rispiridone, used to treat psychosis in scizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. The researchers found that treated mice showed diminished repetitive behaviour. However, they still acted anti-social towards other mice. However, because the drug treatment showed some effect, this further illustrates that the mouse model can be used as a tool to study autism.

The development of a mouse model for autism opens up new possibilities of research. Obviously, it is not possible to kill human patients with autism and crack open their skull to study their brains. With the mouse model, scientists have a tool to further investigate the mechanism by which autism arises and effects our behaviour. They could, for example, create more knock out mice that lack functional genes found to be involved with human autism, to find out more about the underlying pathology. this may in turn lead to novel drug therapies. So far, we have not been able to unravel the biological mechanisms causing the disease.

In related news, scientists from the University of Missouri found that propanolol is effective for use with autistic patients. People treated with the drug, normally used to lower blood pressure and control heart rate, were found to have improved linguistic skills and increased social behaviour. Because propanolol is already being used as a drug, prescription to autism patients could start relatively fast. Currently, the researchers are conducting clinical trials to assess whether the drug has a long term lasting effect.

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