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In order to better observe the impact of the neurodevelopment disorder on the structure of the brain, autism was genetically introduced in monkeys by a team from the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The study revolving around the idea of modifying the macaque monkey genome in order to present the autism disorder has been underway since 2009. Prior studies have focused on autistic mice, but a more reliable animal model was needed due to the fact that mice brains are rather simple in comparison to the more complex monkey brain.
The species selected by this research were macaques, with the first two surrogate-born specimens being born in 2011. Both of the “transgenic” macaques were genetically engineered in order to have the human gene known as MCEP2, a gene that is known to cause autism.
After prolonged observations were applied to the two subjects, the research team noticed how repetitive circular motions started to appear more frequently. The decrease in social interaction and an increase in anxiety commonly linked to autism were also present, making the team conclude that both monkeys were autistic.
Following this discovery, a second generation of monkeys was created in order to see if this gene gets inherited. In 2014, after the two subjects gave birth to baby monkeys, the MCEP2 gene was still present in the newly born specimens. After follow-up checks were undergone, autism became more and more noticeable in the 2nd generation subjects as well.
It is worth noting that even if all of the monkeys were diagnosed with autism, they did not present seizures at any point. This is most likely due to the fact that even if a monkey’s brain is far more complex in comparison to the one possessed by a mouse, it is still inferior in terms of structure complexity to ours.
The ethical problem regarding the forced breeding and genetically engineering of autistic monkeys is also rather valid. Even if the study is conducted in order to find a viable cure for the disease, researchers are still knowingly condemning potentially healthy subjects to a life of autism.
By seeing how autism was genetically introduced in monkeys, the team will be able to see exactly what neural structures undergo alterations once the MCEP2 gene is present. By doing so, gene therapies can potentially gain a massive boost in effectiveness if they are specifically designed to circumvent the effects of the MCEP2 gene. But in order for that to happen, further studies have to be conducted on the subject at hand.