The quest to understand the differences in how people with and without autism perceive the world has received a boost after scientists found a way to study attention in mice. Rodents playing with ipads may seem far removed from the immense complexity of the human brain but could represent a window neuroscientists have been lacking.
“Different attention is one of the earliest signs of autism,” Dr Emma Burrows of Australia’s The Florey Institute told IFLScience. People with autism focus differently from those considered neurotypical. Humanity probably benefited from the diversity as we evolved. However, in a world designed around more common brain wiring, “struggling to disengage one’s attention from something makes it difficult to navigate a world of chaos,” Burrows said.
Scientists have sought animal models to understand these differences, but have run into trouble with mice not wanting to stay still long enough to be tested. Monkeys and even rats have proven more amenable, but Burrows says they are more expensive to keep and much harder to genetically engineer in genes thought to play a role in autism.
On the other hand, it takes just a click of a different sort of mouse for Burrows to order mice modified with suspected autism genes. If she could find a way to test differences in the way wild-type mice focus their attention from their genetically modified counterparts, she could open new doors for her own team, and other autism researchers around the world.
In Neuropsychopharmacology, Burrows and her PhD student Shuting Li have announced just that, adapting a test used to study attention in humans to mice.
The Posner test is a widely used attention test, including by Burrows’ co-author Dr Katherine Johnson. Participants focus on the center of a screen before responding to a target either to the left or right. Prior to the target’s appearance, a cue is given. Usually this is on the same side as the target, priming the subject but sometimes the tester plays tricks, having the cue appear on the opposite side. Differences in response times depending on the cue’s honesty provide important insight into the way attention operates.