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Autism, A Little Understood Disorder May Have Genetic Roots

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern have been able to genetically change mice so their behavior is similar to some people with autism. The researchers hope their discovery will eventually lead to treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder.

Mice are genetically similar to people which is why geneticists such as Eric Lander study them. "We might think of ourselves as different than a mouse because we're so much bigger and we think we're so much smarter, but look inside, the organs are all the same."

Including the brain. Researchers led by Professor Luis Parada at the University of Texas Southwestern have found that by deleting a gene called P-ten in certain parts of the mouse brain, they created mice that act like people with autism spectrum disorder, a range of disorders in which people have trouble with communication and social interaction: they may not even look at people they are with. They may also exhibit other strange behaviors: walking on their toes, and flapping their arms.

Professor Luis Parada directs the university's Center of Developmental Biology. He says by genetically altering the mice, he got some of the same behavior as people who have autism. "The abnormal behaviors are based on the fact that mice are extremely social animals."

Mice are generally interested in other mice, but not mice whose P-ten gene has been deleted. Professor Parada says the genetically altered mice have other social deficits. "If one gives mice in a box cotton material, they will quickly shred it and transform it into a three-dimensional nest and go and burrow under it. When the mutant mice are given this nesting material they completely ignore it."

The genetically altered females also ignore their offspring.

"The P-ten mice they wouldn't let you pick them up. They're just really skittish just like autistic children are. They don't like to be picked up."

Autism affects about one in every 250 people, yet little is known about this disorder or how to treat it which is why the genetic research with mice is so important.

“It gives us at least a first clue as to where the mutations in the brain could result in deficits in social interaction." Professor Parada says the next step is to treat the genetically altered mice with drugs to see if it is possible to reverse the condition. The research might lead someday to a cure for autism spectrum disorder and similar genetic abnormalities in people.