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Vol. LIX, No. 5
March 9, 2007

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STEP Forum Examines What Animals Models Can Reveal

How much can we learn about mental health in humans by studying animal models? This was the subject of a series of lectures in a recent Staff Training in Extramural Program (STEP) forum titled "Animal Models: Behaving like Humans.or like Animals?"

According to the researchers, we can apply a great deal of the information gleaned from working with animals to human subjects, but we have to be careful where we draw the lines. "It's important to begin with what an animal model can do and what it cannot do," said Dr. Jacqueline Crawley, chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, NIMH, who is currently investigating mouse models relevant to autism research.

She explained that the goals for using animal models of neuropsychiatric diseases include working to "discover the functions of known and newly discovered neurotransmitters, receptors, intracellular signaling proteins and genes" in normal and abnormal animal behaviors; generate assays relevant to the symptoms of a known human disease; and test for the efficacy of therapeutics in the models.

What researchers shouldn't do, she stressed, is anthropomorphize the animals. We cannot tell, for example, if a mouse is "depressed" or "anxious," Crawley said, and we certainly can't say a mouse is autistic. "We can only measure anxiety-like behaviors, depression-like symptoms.and autism-like traits." She discussed in detail how researchers test mice to find appropriate models and then looked specifically at strategies for modeling the symptoms of autism in mice. By studying "autism-like" behavior in mice - problems with sociability, for example - researchers can look for causes of the symptoms.

Other speakers at the forum took Crawley's explanation of using models and branched into other areas of neuropsychiatric research. Dr. Klaus Miczek, professor of psychology, psychiatry, pharmacology and neuroscience at Tufts University, examined the connections between stress in mice and gene expression, depression and drug use. Dr. Irwin Lucki, professor, departments of psychiatry and pharmacology, University of Pennsylvania, looked at the use of animal models in studies of depression. And Dr. Stephen Suomi, chief of NICHD's Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, gave an in-depth overview of the research he conducts with rhesus macaque monkeys at the NIH Animal Center, studying the links between their environment, rearing and genetics and their behavioral and biological development.

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