Which Animals Can Have Autism?

Explore 'what animals can have autism?' Delve into animal models in autism research and therapy.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
June 24, 2024
Published On
June 24, 2024

Animal Models in Autism Research

Animal models are a vital part of research in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). They offer a means to explore the complex biology of the disorder and to test potential treatments. When pondering the question, "what animals can have autism?", it's important to understand that while animals don't typically exhibit autism in the same way humans do, certain animal species display behaviors that are analogous to symptoms of ASD, which makes them valuable for research purposes.

Zebrafish and Songbird Models

Zebrafish (Danio Rerio) and songbirds are two such animal models used to study ASD. Zebrafish are chosen due to their genetic and physiological similarities to humans, making them a powerful tool for studying brain development, synaptic growth, and other functions regulating the central nervous system. They represent highly social animals, a characteristic that resonates with the social interaction challenges often seen in ASD.

On the other hand, songbirds serve as a model for the capacity for vocal learning, another key aspect of ASD research. This is due to their intricate vocalizations, which bear similarity to human speech. Their vocal learning process can be disrupted in ways that mirror communication difficulties in ASD.

Non-Human Primate Models

Non-human primate (NHP) models are believed to bridge the gap between humans and lower vertebrate systems in ASD research due to their high degree of correspondence to human behavior and anatomy of neural circuits mediating social behavior [2]. NHPs, like macaques and marmosets, possess complex social structures, long life spans, and cognitive abilities that closely resemble those of humans, making them valuable models for understanding the intricacies of ASD.

To sum up, while no animal model can fully recapitulate the complexity of human ASD, these models offer valuable insights into the genetic, biological, and environmental factors that may contribute to the disorder. The knowledge gained through these models can guide the development of targeted interventions, improving the lives of individuals with ASD and their families. For more information on the relationship between autism and animals, you can explore articles about how autistic kids treat animals or the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for autistic individuals.

Potential Animal Models for ASD

As scientists continue to explore the question, "what animals can have autism?", they have identified several potential animal models for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These models include fruit flies and sea hares, rodent models, and the Borna Disease Virus model. Each offers unique insights into the genetic and behavioral aspects of ASD.

Fruit Flies and Sea Hares

Fruit flies (Drosophila), sea hares (Aplysia), and nematodes (C. elegans) provide potential for large-scale screens using sophisticated genetic tools to dissect the genetic basis of ASD.

The fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) in particular is a powerful genetic model organism used to study a wide range of biological issues. Drosophila has been instrumental in identifying genes associated with ASD and studying behaviors related to ASD, such as repetitive behavior and abnormal social interactions [1].

For instance, studies have shown that Drosophila fed different doses of bisphenol propane exhibit more repetitive behavior and abnormal social interactions compared to controls. These findings suggest that environmental factors may also play a role in the development of ASD-like behaviors.

Rodent Models

Rodent models, particularly the BTBR T+Itpr3tf/J (BTBR) mouse strain, are widely used in ASD research. The BTBR strain exhibits behaviors consistent with core clinical features of ASD, such as decreased interactive social behaviors, reduced vocal ability, and highly stereotyped and repetitive self-grooming behaviors.

The abnormal behaviors in BTBR mice are primarily attributed to three single nucleotide polymorphisms in the Kmo gene. This highlights the role of genetic factors in the development of ASD-like behaviors [1].

Borna Disease Virus Model

The Borna Disease Virus model is another potential tool for studying ASD. This model is based on the idea that viral infections during pregnancy can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring. While research in this area is ongoing, it provides another avenue for understanding the complex and multifaceted nature of ASD.

In conclusion, various animal models provide valuable insights into the genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors that may contribute to ASD. These models also aid in the development of potential therapeutic strategies and interventions, such as animal-assisted therapy for autism. For more information on the relationship between autism and animals, check out our articles on how autistic kids treat animals and do autistic people get on better with animals?.

Maternal Factors and Autism-Like Symptoms

In the quest to answer the question, 'what animals can have autism?', researchers have turned to studying the influence of maternal factors on offspring. Two significant areas of exploration in this context include the impact of Valproic Acid and Borna Disease Virus infection on autism-like symptoms.

Impact of Valproic Acid

Valproic Acid (VPA) is a medication typically used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder. However, exposure to VPA during pregnancy has been linked to autism-like symptoms in animal models, including deficits in social and communication skills as well as restricted/repetitive behaviors [2].

More specifically, maternal VPA administration during early pregnancy can lead to offspring with behavioral abnormalities consistent with autism. These abnormalities include increased stereotypic/repetitive behavior, decreased social interaction, altered sensitivity to sensory stimuli, impaired sensorimotor gating, elevated anxiety, and impaired learning [3]. These behaviors are also observed in offspring from maternal immune activation models, indicating construct and face validity for autism. This sheds some light on the question, 'can animals have autism?'

Borna Disease Virus Infection

Another maternal factor that has been linked to autism-like symptoms in animals is the Borna Disease Virus (BDV) infection. Research has shown that BDV infection in neonatal rats results in a virus-induced animal model of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This model exhibits neuroanatomical defects, behavioral abnormalities, and neurochemical defects.

Interestingly, there's also evidence suggesting that immune factors may play a role in the etiology of some forms of autism. Studies have shown that plasma samples from children with autism demonstrate antibodies to specific proteins in the brain, and plasma from mothers who gave birth to children with autism show autoantibodies. Exposure to these antibodies during pregnancy in rhesus monkeys resulted in increased levels of whole-body stereotypies in the offspring [4].

However, while these animal models display autism-like symptoms, it's important to remember that humans and animals exhibit different behaviors and reactions. The goal of such research is to gain a better understanding of autism and develop effective interventions and therapies, such as autism animal-assisted therapy.

Genetics and Animal Models

Unraveling the enigma of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often involves exploring the genetic underpinnings of the condition. Many of these investigations utilize animal models, which can provide valuable insights into the role of genetic mutations and the behavior of ASD.

Role of Genetic Mutations

Large-scale datasets and biobanks have linked multiple genes to autism spectrum disorders. Novel rodent mutants with deletions, truncations, and in some cases, overexpression of these candidate genes have been developed and studied both behaviorally and biologically [4].

For instance, the human cerebellar patterning gene, EN2, has been associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Studies have shown that En2 mutations in mice can lead to behavioral deficits in social and motor tasks, indicating a potential link between EN2 and autism-related behaviors.

Moreover, evidence suggests that immune factors may play a role in the etiology of some forms of autism. Studies have shown that plasma samples from children with autism and their mothers exhibit specific immunoreactivity patterns, indicating a potential link between immune function and autism [4].

Mouse Models in ASD Research

Mouse models have proven to be essential for research into the potential causes and treatments of autism. These models can display core symptoms of the disorder and help in the identification of biological markers for more definitive diagnosis.

Inbred mouse strains with naturally occurring genetic polymorphisms are important models to understand the variation in autism spectrum disorders and to elucidate the genetic characteristics placing individuals at the extremes of ASDs. The Collaborative Cross (CC) model captures almost 90% of all genetic variation present in mice, making it an ideal population-level model to elucidate the genetic control of ASD characteristics [4].

These genetic insights have the potential to significantly impact our understanding of ASD and could lead to the development of more effective treatments and interventions. For more information on the role of animals in autism, check out our articles on can animals have autism? and autism animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) for Autism

While the question of "what animals can have autism?" remains largely unanswered, there is substantial evidence pointing towards the valuable role that animals can play in supporting individuals with autism. This is particularly evident in the domain of Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI).

Impact of AAI Programs

A systematic literature review conducted from 2012 to 2015 revealed that AAI programs for autism generally include one animal per participant with a total contact time of approximately 10 hours over 8 to 12 weeks. The most consistent finding from these studies was increased social interaction, a result that was unanimously significant across all 22 studies. Beyond fostering social interactions, other areas of potential promise requiring further investigation include positive emotions, stress reduction, language/communication improvements, and motor skill enhancements. Outcomes related to problem behaviors and restricted/repetitive behaviors were mixed.

Interestingly, research on AAI for autism has grown, with studies showing that animals can act as social facilitators, connecting individuals with autism to the people around them. Animals have been documented to uniquely elicit social interactions, potentially fostering social development and reducing symptoms through AAI [5].

Benefits of Animals in AAI

Animals can not only bring joy and companionship into our lives but they can also significantly influence our psychobiology. Studies have shown that animals can positively influence human psychobiology by reducing stress in social situations. Children with autism may experience lower stress levels when an animal is present, acting as a buffer and positive focus of attention.

Despite the promising evidence, it's important to acknowledge that the research on AAI for autism is still developing. While larger sample sizes, use of control or comparison conditions, standardized outcome measures, and physiological assessments have improved the evidence base, there is still a high risk of bias in many studies. This indicates the need for more rigorous research methodologies to ensure the validity of the findings.

In conclusion, animals may not experience autism in the same way humans do, but their role in supporting those with autism is undeniable. From acting as social facilitators to reducing stress, the benefits of animals in AAI highlight the positive impact of our furry friends. For more information about how animals can support individuals with autism, check out our articles on autism animal-assisted therapy and how do autistic kids treat animals?.

Automated Tools in Autism Research

To understand the question - 'what animals can have autism?', it is important to delve into the role of automated tools used in autism research. These tools, which include machine learning and behavioral analysis tools, are revolutionizing the way researchers study behavior in animal models of autism.

Machine Learning Tools

Machine learning tools like Simple Behavioral Analysis (SimBA), Motion Sequencing (MoSeq), and Mouse Action Recognition System (MARS) are being utilized to track and define complex behaviors in animals such as mice, rats, flies, fish, birds, and monkeys. These tools analyze social interactions among wildtype animals and those missing autism-related genes, allowing for comparisons and assessments of potential therapies for autism [6].

The use of these tools in autism research has many advantages. For instance, they offer objective measures, providing consistency and reproducibility across labs. They help in quantitatively defining parameters of behaviors, allowing researchers to compare results and correlate specific behaviors with brain activity more precisely than manual scoring methods. Techniques like optogenetics can be used in combination with these tools to turn specific brain circuits on and off, enabling researchers to pinpoint the brain activity underlying specific actions in animals.

Behavioral Analysis Tools

Behavioral analysis tools, often used in conjunction with machine learning tools, serve as a valuable asset in studying and understanding the behaviors of animals that may exhibit autism-like symptoms. They can define the component movements of complex behaviors in animals, such as rearing, grooming, or fighting. These tools can be trained to focus on specific behaviors or analyze video data without prior training to identify salient differences, like those between male and female mice in social interactions [6].

While these tools offer a wealth of benefits, it's important to be mindful of potential challenges. For instance, interpreting social behaviors in different species could potentially lead to misinterpretations if behaviors are taken out of context. Some researchers argue that relying solely on machine learning to categorize animal behaviors may not provide a comprehensive understanding, especially for complex behaviors that occur within specific contexts [6].

The use of automated tools in autism research is a promising development that may help unravel the mystery of whether animals can have autism. It also underscores the importance of continued research and innovation in providing insights into the complex nature of autism, which may eventually lead to more effective intervention strategies, such as animal-assisted therapy.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8645879/

[2]: https://medcraveonline.com/JNSK/animal-models-of-autism-spectrum-disorder.html

[3]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3088489/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3014989/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6510492/

[6]: https://www.thetransmitter.org/spectrum/how-artificial-intelligence-is-shaking-up-animal-behavior-studies-in-autism/