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Chinese Scientists Create First 'Autistic' Monkeys In Hopes Of Finding Cure For the Disorder [VIDEO]

Jan 29, 2016 06:44 PM EST
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For the first time, scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, China, have engineered monkeys to have a human autism gene. They hope their findings will lead to a better understanding of the disorder in humans and possibly future treatments. 

Autism refers to a group of complex intellectual and behavioral disorders, which is found in about one in 68 children in the U.S., according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Generally, the disorder is characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Until now, autism studies on animals relied on lab mice, which researchers say yielded "disappointingly few leads on how to solve the problem in people," because of the many differences between human and mice brains.

In the latest study, however, Chinese scientists attached MECP2 genes -- thought to be linked to autism in humans -- to a harmless virus and injected it into the eggs of macaque monkeys. The eggs were then fertilized and implanted into female monkeys. 

Researchers say the transgenic -- or genetically modified -- monkeys began showing asocial behavior at about 11 months old. This included pacing in circles and becoming stressed when looked in the eyes. (Scroll to read more...)

"As compared to the wild type monkeys, MECP2 transgenic monkeys gained weight more slowly, had fatty acid metabolism abnormalities, exhibited a higher frequency of repetitive circular locomotion and showed increased stress responses in threat-related anxiety tests," lead researcher Zilong Qiu said in a statement. "Most importantly, the transgenic monkeys showed less social interaction time with wild-type monkeys and also a reduced interaction time when paired with other transgenic monkeys in social interaction tests."

While ethical concerns have been raised regarding the new research on monkeys, researchers suggest it paves the way for future, ground-breaking studies of brain disorders in humans and other closely-related species.

Furthermore, primates have also recently been used in studies designed to better understand Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.

Their study was recently published in the journal Nature

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