Autism: Animal Models


Autism is a life‐long pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by deficits in social interaction, language development and communication, abnormal repetitive behaviours and severely restricted interests. Autism has proven difficult to study because of the complexity of its behavioural symptoms, complicated genetics and lack of reliable biomarkers. Progress has been made, however, in the development of animal models that allow investigators to model some of the core symptoms of autism, including deficits in social interactions, aspects of social communication and stereotyped, repetitive behaviours. Specific hypotheses can now be formulated and tested using these animal models. This article describes some of the major behavioural approaches and animal models developed to study neurodevelopmental disorders, with a focus on autism spectrum disorders.

Key Concepts:

  • Autism is a complex disorder whose underlying biology is being studied using rodent and nonhuman primate animal models.

  • Rodents and nonhuman primates are social animals with rich and complex behavioural repertories that make them useful for modelling neurodevelopmental disorders.

  • Many of the behaviours that reflect core deficits in autism, including social communication, social interaction and stereotypies, can be modelled in rodents and nonhuman primates.

  • Inbred strains of mice can be used to discover genes important for the expression of complex behaviours and can provide insight into the neurobiology of social interactions and social communication.

  • Genetic manipulations possible in mice provide a powerful strategy for investigating the genetic substrates of the disorder, including deletions or overexpression of genes thought to be involved in the aetiology of autism.

  • Animal models of neurodevelopmental disorders, while important and useful, typically only model specific aspects of a disorder rather that recapitulating its full symptomatology.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; mouse models; nonhuman primate models; autoimmunity; GABA receptors; fragile X; Rett syndrome; social interaction; stereotypies; valproic acid

Figure 1.

Two C57BL/6J juvenile male mice are engaged in reciprocal social interactions, illustrating the parameter scored as ‘push past’. Unpublished image kindly provided by Dr. Mu Yang, Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

Figure 2.

Two juvenile rhesus monkeys engaged in social grooming. Social grooming, along with time spent in proximity or physical contact with conspecifics, plays a key role in establishing and maintaining long‐lasting social relationships within macaque matrilines. Unpublished image kindly provided by Kathy West, CNPRC base grant (P51RR000169).



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Further Reading

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Bauman, Melissa D, Crawley, Jacqueline N, and Berman, Robert F(Oct 2010) Autism: Animal Models. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022368]