Chinese scientists claim to have genetically engineered monkeys with autism

In a new research paper published Monday in the journal Nature, neuroscientist Zilong Qiu from the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and his colleagues explained that they genetically modified more than a dozen monkeys with a genetic error that can cause human children to have a rare condition with symptoms including mental retardation and autistic-like behaviors.
Qiu told the New York Times that the modification caused the monkeys to exhibit behaviors that were “very similar” to “human autism patients, including repetitive behaviors, increased anxiety and, most importantly, defects in social interactions.” He added that they were now imaging the brains of the monkeys to find brain circuit deficiencies responsible for the observed behaviors.

According to the MIT Technology Review, the modified primates were found pacing in circles and spending less time interacting with their fellow monkeys. In addition, they displayed higher stress levels when the scientists stared them in the eyes, frequently responding by grunting and screaming, and two of them even fell ill in ways that “echoed” human children.
Monkeys provide better models… but is the research ethical?
As both the Times and the Technology Review pointed out, much of the research into autism has focused on using mice models, largely because they are inexpensive and reproduce quickly. Yet this research has failed to generate many leads on how to address the condition in humans, since the brains of mice are structured differently than ours and lack a prefrontal cortex.
“Mice are not in the same league when you’re talking about doing models of social cognition and interaction. They’re not even close,” Jonathan Sebat, head of the University of California San Diego’s Beyster Center of Psychiatric Genomics, who was not involved in the monkey research, told the Times. In addition to being less complex, the brains of mice provide little opportunity for research due to how quickly the creatures mature.
Qiu explained that the lack of progress in rodent-related studies was one of the primary reasons he and his colleagues decided to create autistic monkeys, as they provide “a very unique model” for studying the disease in humans. He added that scientists should be able to see which brain networks are disrupted by autism, and test out new treatment options, such as deep-brain stimulation.
As the MIT Technology Review noted, “Using any monkey in research, and especially creating ones with psychiatric disorders, is a charged subject that raises animal welfare questions. Even so, a small number of centers in China, Japan, and the US have recently redoubled efforts to create monkeys with human gene errors to see if they can cause psychiatric problems, including versions of schizophrenia.”
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