While animal testing has been used extensively by autism researchers looking to try out new drugs or to better understand the cause of autism, scientists in China have just made a massive breakthrough by researching monkeys. According to the scientists, they have used genetic engineering to create monkeys with a version of autism.

While this new practice could make the process of testing treatments easier, it also raises a number of thorny ethical and practical questions regarding how the monkeys themselves will be used. Neuroscientist Zilong Qiu of the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences has claimed that his team has created more than a dozen monkeys possessing a genetic error that in human children will lead to a rare syndrome with symptoms that include autistic symptoms, restricted interests, and repetitive speech.

“The monkeys show very similar behavior [to] human autism patients,” Qiu said. “We think it provides a very unique model.” One of the reasons the monkeys provide such a unique model is that up until now, there has been a lack of animal models that accurately recreate what goes on inside humans, limiting research to genetically altering rodents with mutations linked to autism in humans.
“Given that Autism Spectrum Disorder is [a] uniquely human disorder characterized by deficits in complex behaviors, there are limitations in relying solely on mouse models,” said University of California neuroscientist Melissa Bauman, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “Many pharmacological [drug] interventions developed in mice to treat human disease ultimately fail.”

However, since monkeys are very closely related to humans, they could provide real insight into better understanding the brain circuitry, behaviors, and genetic traits that lead to human autism. Interest in the possibility of monkeys to shed light on autism has grown in the past several years, with reports of some scientists trying to create mutant monkeys by altering single genes.

However, monkeys have always made genetic research difficult since monkeys tend to produce only one offspring at a time, leading to multi-year studies that slowly generate data. In the new study, Qiu and his colleagues not only looked at the genetics associated with creating a primate model of autism, but they also managed to increase the reproduction process, so it would take less time to generate new generations of monkeys.

“Autism is an incredibly complex disease, and it does not have a single underlying biological cause. While it certainly has a genetic component to it, a full understanding of the genetics is still a long way away.” said University of Mississippi Medical Center evolutionary geneticist Eric Vallende.

Going forward, Qiu and other researchers believe that they can use these animal models to pinpoint autism-related brain circuits and test new therapies.