An ode to rats as animal models for autism

This week, the lab of Dr. Jill Silverman at UC Davis published a study that showed the most similar types of social communication deficits in an animal model.  Her group, led by Elizabeth Berg, used a rat model, rather than a mouse, because rats exhibit both receptive and expressive communication.  Through a collaboration within the UC Davis MIND Institute and Mount Sinai School of Medicine, she tested an animal model of autism that shows a lack of expression of SHANK3.  SHANK3 mutations are seen in those with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome as well as in 1% of people with autism.  This new study opens up new ways to understand autism symptoms in an animal model, and moves autism research using animals forward significantly.   The references mentioned in the podcast are:

Help for children with minimal language

About 25-30% of children with autism show language impairment or no language at all, and these families often use assisted communication devices like picture exchange to help their children communicate.  Recently, electronic communication devices like the iPad have revolutionized the way that people communicate, but little research has been done on how and if they are really effective.    This week, a multidisciplinary group of researchers added an assisted communication device, an iPad, to behavioral intervention for a 9 month trial.  As it turns out, the group with all 3 (language intervention, behavioral intervention and the communication device) showed the greatest gains in language and speech, but only when the intervention was intense.  This new study shows that in the right context, these devices can help those who do not communicate with words, and provides preliminary proof that this technology is indeed helpful.