Autism: Animal Models


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by deficits in social interaction, social communication, sensory abnormalities, stereotyped and repetitive behaviours, and restricted interests. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has proven difficult to study because of the diversity of its behavioural symptoms, complex genetics and lack of ubiquitous biomarkers. Progress in the development of heuristic animal models has allowed 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 in mouse, rat and non‐human primate models. Translational applications of animal models have advanced the discovery of therapeutic interventions for treating the core features of ASD. This article describes some of the major behavioural approaches and animal models designed to study neurodevelopmental disorders, with a focus on ASDs.

Key Concepts

  • Autism is a complex disorder whose underlying biology is being studied using rodent and non‐human primate animal models.
  • Rodents and non‐human 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, motor stereotypies and repetitive behaviours, can be modelled in rodents and non‐human primates.
  • Inbred strains of mice can be used to discover genes important for the expression of complex behaviours and can provide insights into the neurobiology of social interactions and social communication.
  • Mice and rats with targeted mutations in risk genes and deletions identified in people with autism provide research tools for investigating mechanistic substrates of the disorder and for discovering therapeutic interventions.
  • 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; rat models; non‐human primate models; genes; mutations; social interaction; stereotypies; repetitive behaviours; cognitive

Figure 1. Two C57BL/6J male mice are engaged in reciprocal social interactions, illustrating the parameter scored as ‘push past’. Courtesy of 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. Courtesy of Kathy West, CNPRC.


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Further Readings

Abrahams BS and Geschwind DH (2008) Advances in autism genetics: on the threshold of a new neurobiology. Nature Reviews. Genetics 9: 341–355.

Amaral DG , Schumann CM and Nordahl CW (2008) Neuroanatomy of autism. Trends in Neurosciences 31: 137–145.

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Capitanio JP and Emborg ME (2008) Contributions of non‐human primates to neuroscience research. Lancet 371: 1126–1135.

Crawley JN (2007) What's Wrong with My Mouse? Behavioral Phenotyping of Transgenic and Knockout Mice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lewis MH , Tanimura Y , Lee LW and Bodfish JW (2007) Animal models of restricted repetitive behavior in autism. Behavioural Brain Research 176: 66–74.

Moy SS , Nadler JJ , Young NB , et al. (2007) Mouse behavioral tasks relevant to autism: phenotypes of 10 inbred strains. Behavioural Brain Research 176: 4–20.

Patterson PH (2009) Immune involvement in schizophrenia and autism: etiology, pathology and animal models. Behavioural Brain Research 204: 313–321.

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Bauman, Melissa D, Crawley, Jacqueline N, and Berman, Robert F(Mar 2019) Autism: Animal Models. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022368.pub2]