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Mol Psychiatry. 2008 Jan;13(1):4-26. Epub 2007 Sep 11.

Advances in behavioral genetics: mouse models of autism.

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Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center, Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.


Autism is a neurodevelopmental syndrome with markedly high heritability. The diagnostic indicators of autism are core behavioral symptoms, rather than definitive neuropathological markers. Etiology is thought to involve complex, multigenic interactions and possible environmental contributions. In this review, we focus on genetic pathways with multiple members represented in autism candidate gene lists. Many of these pathways can also be impinged upon by environmental risk factors associated with the disorder. The mouse model system provides a method to experimentally manipulate candidate genes for autism susceptibility, and to use environmental challenges to drive aberrant gene expression and cell pathology early in development. Mouse models for fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome and other disorders associated with autistic-like behavior have elucidated neuropathology that might underlie the autism phenotype, including abnormalities in synaptic plasticity. Mouse models have also been used to investigate the effects of alterations in signaling pathways on neuronal migration, neurotransmission and brain anatomy, relevant to findings in autistic populations. Advances have included the evaluation of mouse models with behavioral assays designed to reflect disease symptoms, including impaired social interaction, communication deficits and repetitive behaviors, and the symptom onset during the neonatal period. Research focusing on the effect of gene-by-gene interactions or genetic susceptibility to detrimental environmental challenges may further understanding of the complex etiology for autism.

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