Misjudging monkeys; consoling voles; canine connection

Headlines about “autistic monkeys” are missing the point, prairie voles show empathy, and dogs could offer clues to psychiatric conditions in people.

By Katie Moisse
29 January 2016 | 4 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.
  • In case you missed it, Chinese researchers have engineered monkeys with autism-like behaviors. They performed this feat with the help of a virus, which inserted extra copies of the autism-linked gene MeCP2 into the monkey genome.

    But the resulting animals aren’t “monkeys with autism” as some headlines suggest. Yes, they have extra copies of MeCP2, a gene duplicated in people with MeCP2 duplication syndrome, many of whom have autism. And yes, the animals show some repetitive behaviors and social deficits.

    But as Nicholette Zeliadt reports in our article on this paper, there are many, many caveats. Unlike people with MeCP2 duplication syndrome, the monkeys have neither seizures nor learning disabilities. And those with seven extra copies of the gene have symptoms similar to those with just one copy — again diverging from the human disorder.

    The monkeys are a technological feat and may provide clues about brain circuits relevant to autism. But “autistic monkeys” they are not.

  • Prairie voles are fascinating creatures. The tiny rodents have lifelong mates and share in the care of their young. A new study shows that they also console their partners after stressful events.

    The finding, published last week in Science, suggests that voles of the prairie variety have empathy, just as we do. Blocking the rodents’ receptors for oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone,’ abolishes this consoling behavior, the study found.

    The study offers clues about the potential role of oxytocin in conditions such as autism, the researchers write. “Understanding the neurobiology of oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in prairie voles may help us to understand the diverse deficits in detecting and responding to the emotions of others that are present in many psychiatric conditions, including autism, schizophrenia, and psychopathy.”

  • The Morris water maze is a mainstay in memory labs. Researchers use the large pool of water with a barely submerged platform, which rodents try to locate, to spot memory problems in mice. Control rodents remember the position of the platform. Those with memory-blocking mutations spend some extra time swimming.

    To help bridge the gap between mice and people, researchers have developed the human equivalent of the water maze: a virtual rocket ride in which users have to find a hidden treasure as quickly as possible. The researchers hope the modified ‘maze,’ which they described in a study published last week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, will help translate discoveries in animals into treatments for people with memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s worth noting that some autism-linked mutations are tied to memory problems in people and mice.

  • Researchers are on the hunt for genes linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — a psychiatric condition that’s common among people with autism. And they’re enlisting the help of a certain best friend.

    It turns out some dog breeds are particularly prone to compulsive disorders that resemble OCD. By sequencing DNA from thousands of dogs, researchers hope to uncover clues about OCD and other psychiatric disorders in people.

    Organizers of the project, called Darwin’s Dogs, have enrolled 3,000 dogs since October 2015. They hope to get 2,000 more and plan to start analyzing DNA in March, according to Nature.

  • A cheeky column in last week’s Science describes the sinking feeling early-career scientists get when reading a scientific paper.

    “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article,” writes Adam Ruben, author of the book “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.”

    Riffing on the 5 stages of grief, Ruben outlines 10 stages of reading a scientific paper, which include optimism, regret, bafflement, distraction and rage. The final stage is “genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities.”