Study Shows Decreased Aggressive Behavior Toward Strangers in ASD Model

While aggression toward caregivers and peers is a challenge faced by many individuals and families dealing with autism, there has been much speculation in the media over the possibility of generally heightened aggression in those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. A new study by scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) found no evidence of increased aggressive behavior toward strangers in an animal model of the condition.

In fact, the study, published recently online ahead of print in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior, found these animals showed decreased aggressive behavior toward strangers and, instead, engage in more repetitive behavior than normal mice.

“These mice show traits relevant to autism, such as an overgrown brain and reduced social interaction,” said Damon Page, a TSRI biologist who conducted the study with Research Associate Amy Clipperton Allen. “What we don’t see in this model is a general increase in aggressive behavior.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a highly inheritable condition characterized by impaired social behavior and communication skills and a tendency towards repetitive patterns of behavior. A 2010 survey of eight-year-olds in 11 communities across the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a rate of autism spectrum disorder of approximately one in 68 children. Boys, it found, are at four- to five-times greater risk than girls.

This shows blocks spelling out the word autism.
The researchers noted a decrease in aggressive behavior toward strangers in mouse models of ASD. The image is for illustrative purposes only. Credit Columbia University School of Nursing / CTRPhotos.

Page and his colleagues, who use animal models to understand how autism risk factors impact the developing brain and to identify potential treatments for the condition, have found that animals with mutations in the autism risk gene phosphatase and tensin homolog (Pten) mimic aspects of autism, including increased brain size, social deficits and increased repetitive behavior. The new study used the model to examine aggressive behavior directed at unfamiliar mice.

Typically, when an unfamiliar mouse is put into the “home” cage of another mouse, the resident will attack the intruder, reflecting the natural tendency of mice to defend their territory.

That was not the case in the study. When a stranger mouse was placed in the home of a Pten-mutant mouse, instead of attacking or investigating the intruder, these mutant animals engaged in repetitive behavior—in this case, digging.

“This is a striking result,” Page said. “The mutant mice appear to avoid aggressive encounters with the intruder and instead engage in repetitive behavior. An analogy might be a stranger entering a house, and the resident rearranging the books on the bookshelf instead of confronting the intruder.”

Page plans further studies examining the neurobiological relationship between social deficits and repetitive behavior, two of the primary symptoms of autism.

About this psychology research

The study, “Decreased Aggression and Increased Repetitive Behavior in Pten Haploinsufficient Mice,” was supported by Ms. Nancy Lurie Marks, The American Honda and Children’s Healthcare Charity Inc. and the State of Florida.

Contact: Eric Sauter – Scripps Research Institute
Source: Scripps Research Institute press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Columbia University School of Nursing / CTRPhotos adapted from a previous Columbia University press release featured on NeuroscienceNews
Original Research: Abstract for “Decreased aggression and increased repetitive behavior in Pten haploinsufficient mice” by A. E. Clipperton-Allen and D. T. Page in Genes, Brain and Behavior. Published online February 10 2015 doi:10.1111/gbb.12192

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