We have just published our first paper on extending the rodent model of maternal immune activation to monkeys. As repeat readers of this blog, and the accompanying book, well know, an important risk factor for both autism and schizophrenia is infection during pregnancy. We modeled this in mice by simply activating the mother’s immune system at mid-pregnancy. The resulting offspring display behaviors consistent with both of these disorders as well as neuropathology seen in these disorders. Since monkey brains and behavior more closely resemble humans than do mice, it was important to test whether the same findings would hold true when activating the immune system during pregnancy in monkeys.
Spearheading this work at UC Davis and the California Regional Primate Center, Melissa Bauman and David Amaral found that, indeed, the cardinal symptoms of autism (stereotyped/repetitive behavior, deficits in verbal communication, and highly abnormal social behaviors) are found in the offspring of mothers immune activated during either the first or second trimester, although more pronounced effects were seen in the former offspring. In further work yet to be published, we also found that there are eye tracking abnormalities (lack of eye contact with others) in these offspring, as is seen in human autism. These findings not only establish a new model in non-human primates, but they also validate prior work with rodents: the latter findings are not restricted just to mice and rats.