Autism Speaks Mouse Behavior Workshop
February 6, 2008, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Ask any parent and they will tell you that autism involves many very complicated behaviors of frustratingly unknown motive. To help us understand these behaviors, what causes them, and how to treat them, researchers need a method to experimentally model them. One of the most common means of doing so is to use animal models. With today's available scientific methodology, the animal species for which behavior (and its underlying basis) is most commonly analyzed is the mouse. Mouse behavior offers a robust endpoint to assess the function of genes of interest as well as gene/environment interactions and, most importantly, early screening of potential new therapeutics.
Unfortunately, because the behaviors we associate with autism are so fundamentally human in nature, it has been difficult for researchers to decide which mouse behaviors are optimal for assessing autism-like traits in mouse models. The result is that many laboratories have been utilizing different tests, making it problematic to compare results and complicated to determine progress. Therefore, the Mouse Behavior Workshop organized and sponsored by Autism Speaks on February 6, 2008 in Baltimore, MD focused on areas of consensus, future needs, and group recommendations towards the development and implementation of behavioral assays and applications for rodent models of autism.
It is understood that autism may be a collection of disorders with shared core behavioral features. At the meeting, consensus was reached on the need for robust, easily replicable behavioral tasks analogous to the diagnostic behavioral symptoms of autism, especially those in the core domains of sociability, communication, and repetitive behaviors.
In this meeting, specialists in mouse behavior took the opportunity to identify already available behavioral tasks with 'face validity' to some of the defining features of autism. With the right equipment and the right training, many of the tests identified are relatively straightforward to conduct, while others require more intensive training to achieve the expertise necessary to properly analyze the mouse behaviors of interest.
Other current needs identified include development of new mouse behavioral tasks, along with basic research into the neurobiology of social behaviors, which remains relatively understudied. Perhaps most importantly, researchers need to look ahead toward the translational application of mouse models into development of treatments.
In conclusion, the participants agreed that while there are currently no "gold standards" for mouse behavioral assays, there are many good choices for new and continuing researchers to start with. Several well-defined and validated ways to explore social, communicative and repetitive behaviors have been studied and now published, and the field looks forward to moving ahead to develop and improve these methods. "This will absolutely require the ongoing exchange of ideas and findings at small meetings such as this," explained meeting chair, Jacqueline Crawley, Ph.D. Dr. Crawley will be moderating a roundtable discussion on developing methods to assay communication deficits in animal models of autism at the upcoming International Meeting for Autism Research in May.