Special report: Unusual animal models of autism

A lighthearted, colorful, chaotic lab scene with fruit flies flying in formation, worms peeking out of piles of dirt and zebrafish spilling out of beakers.
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What studying worms, flies and fish says about autism

Researchers are increasingly turning to simple animals to learn about autism biology and find leads for new drugs.

By Sarah DeWeerdt
8 September 2021 | 19 min read
Colorful illustration shows a esearcher with frogs and frog eggs.
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Autism research makes the leap to frogs

Frogs are useful for autism research for a slew of reasons, including the fact that the animals' initial development occurs outside of the mother's body in plain view.

By Laura Dattaro
8 September 2021 | 3 min read
Illustration shows two octopi interacting on a yellow background.
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Getting eight arms around autism

Octopuses can solve some of the same problems as people but do so in unusual ways.

By Sarah DeWeerdt
8 September 2021 | 4 min read
Colorful illustration shows a boy talking and a bird singing, with the sounds merging between them.
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Tuning into bird songs for clues to autism

Parallels between how birds learn to sing and how children learn to speak provide a window into the roots of language difficulties in autism.

By Sarah DeWeerdt
8 September 2021 | 4 min read

Stimulant restores cell signaling, eases behavior issues in animals missing autism gene

Worms and zebrafish missing both copies of the gene CHD7 have disrupted cellular signaling, a dearth of inhibitory neurons and behavior changes — all of which are reversed by the stimulant drug ephedrine.

By Peter Hess
28 May 2021 | 4 min read
Researcher in red plaid shirt and blue nitrile gloves holds a lab mouse fitted with a fiber optic cannula, a needle-shaped glass piece that goes into the mouse's brain surrounded by a metal sleeve to which researchers attach a fiber optic patch cord.
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How artificial intelligence is shaking up animal behavior studies in autism

Next-generation machine-learning tools are poised to upend how scientists study behavior in animal models of autism — and not everyone is happy about it.

By Alla Katsnelson
24 May 2021 | 9 min read
Young zebrafish have transparent skin, which allows researchers to track the movements of glowing beads of excrement through their gut.

Zebrafish and ‘Smurf cakes’ link autism gene mutation to digestive woes

Mutations in a top autism gene called SYNGAP1 slow the rate at which zebrafish digest food and pass waste, and may also disrupt gut function in people.

By Peter Hess
24 November 2020 | 5 min read

Map of fly brain lights up millions of connections

A new wiring diagram of the fruit fly brain is the most complex ever created.

By Laura Dattaro
12 February 2020 | 2 min read
Glowing neurons in the transparent young zebrafish highlight activity in its brain and muscles.

Zebrafish show true colors as models for autism sleep studies

Sleeping zebrafish show two patterns of neuronal activity that are analogous to those in people.

By Princess Ojiaku
13 September 2019 | 2 min read

New maps of neuronal connections reveal roundworms’ wiring

Two new maps show the entire nervous system of the adult roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

By Polina Porotskaya
30 August 2019 | 2 min read

Roundworm roundup may reveal function of autism genes

Tracking how roundworms crawl has enabled scientists to determine that many autism genes are involved in sensory processing and learning.

By Sarah DeWeerdt
6 November 2018 | 4 min read
Microscopic images from the eye of a fly.

Mutant flies reveal key gene interactions within autism deletion

The absence of several interacting genes may underlie the developmental problems seen in people missing a segment of chromosome 16.

By Alla Katsnelson
20 August 2018 | 4 min read

‘Antisocial’ bees point to ancient roots for some autism genes

Honey bees that fail certain social tests have genetic profiles similar to those of people with autism.

By Hannah Furfaro, Jessica Wright
19 September 2017 | 5 min read

Hazel Sive: A fish tale

Hazel Sive is a classically-trained embryologist and developmental biologist, and an expert in zebrafish genetics. She is using the small, transparent fish embryos for research on autism — an odd choice, as they obviously lack the complex behavioral repertoire seen in the disorder.

By Emily Singer
29 November 2010 | 7 min read

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