A group of scientists in China announced the results of a controversial experiment this week: they claim that by using genetic engineering, they’ve bred macaque monkeys with an autism-like disorder. While they intend to use the animals to test treatments and potential cures, some scientists are skeptical that the results will have anything useful to teach us about autism in people.
Neuroscientists at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences attempted to copy Rett syndrome, a disorder in humans who have too many copies of the MECP2 gene, by using a virus to inject copies of the gene into monkey eggs during fertilization. Using this method, they were able to breed over a dozen monkeys with the disorder. The monkeys that have gone through this process experience a range of health and psychiatric issues — some of them pace in circles and avoid interacting with other monkeys, some become visibly stressed when researchers stare them in the eyes, and some have even developed severe illnesses associated with their particular gene defect.
While the lead researcher, Zilong Qiu, is calling the results a victory, he admits that the monkeys aren’t a perfect model for humans with Rett syndrome. Some of the behaviors they exhibit, like pacing, aren’t found in humans with this form of autism, and some of the more serious complications patients can experience, like seizures, haven’t appeared in the monkeys at all. It’s hard to see how these monkeys would work as test subjects for human therapies when the disorder manifests in such different ways in each species.
It’s no surprise that animal welfare advocates and medical ethicists have already condemned the study. At a time when more and more medical research is abandoning the use of chimps and other apes, this kind of invasive research on monkeys seems like a major step backward. Moreover, it’s possible that this research won’t be helpful to everyone on the autism spectrum anyway — Rett syndrome is just one potential cause of autism-like symptoms, and a comparatively rare one, so the findings may not be useful for those without this particular genetic defect.
There’s one other major problem with this approach to treatment: many people with autism say that their disability is an important part of who they are, and they don’t want to be cured. Given that many of the people these researchers are trying to help aren’t interested in changing themselves, it seems especially cruel to subject these primates to medical testing when money could be better spent on resources to help people with autism integrate better into society.