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Brain Res Bull. 2002 Jan 1;57(1):109-19.

Molecular genetics and animal models in autistic disorder.

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INSERM U316, Tours Cedex, France.


Autistic disorder is a behavioural syndrome beginning before the age of 3 years and lasting over the whole lifetime. It is characterised by impaired communication, impaired social interactions, and repetitive interests and behaviour. The prevalence is about 7/10,000 taking a restrictive definition and more than 1/500 with a broader definition, including all the pervasive developmental disorders. The importance of genetic factors has been highlighted by epidemiological studies showing that autistic disorder is one of the most genetic neuropsychiatric diseases. The relative risk of first relatives is about 100-fold higher than the risk in the normal population and the concordance in monozygotic twin is about 60%. Different strategies have been applied on the track of susceptibility genes. The systematic search of linked loci led to contradictory results, in part due to the heterogeneity of the clinical definitions, to the differences in the DNA markers, and to the different methods of analysis used. An oversimplification of the inferred model is probably also cause of our disappointment. More work is necessary to give a clearer picture. One region emerges more frequently: the long arm of chromosome 7. Several candidate genes have been studied and some gave indications of association: the Reelin gene and the Wnt2 gene. Cytogenetical abnormalities are frequent at 15q11-13, the region of the Angelman and Prader-Willi syndrome. Imprinting plays an important role in this region, no candidate gene has been identified in autism. Biochemical abnormalities have been found in the serotonin system. Association and linkage studies gave no consistent results with some serotonin receptors and in the transporter, although it seems interesting to go further in the biochemical characterisation of the serotonin transporter activity, particularly in platelets, easily accessible. Two monogenic diseases have been associated with autistic disorder: tuberous sclerosis and fragile X. A better knowledge of the pathophysiology of these disorders can help to understand autism. Different other candidate genes have been tested, positive results await replications in other samples. Animal models have been developed, generally by knocking out the different candidate genes. Behaviour studies have mainly focused on anxiety and learning paradigms. Another group of models results from surgical or toxic lesions of candidate regions in the brain, in general during development. The tools to analyse these animals are not yet standardised, and an important effort needs to be undertaken.

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