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Utilising Touchscreen technology for preclinical modeling of attention in autism spectrum disorder

Autism is a complex spectrum of disorders characterized by core behavioural deficits in social interaction, communication, and behavioural flexibility.

Aims

This project will investigate attentional abilities and behavioural flexibility of NL3 mice and their WT littermates using a novel touchscreen testing apparatus. Mice will be trained in a step-wise process to touch a computer screen for a reward. Through increasing the complexity of stimuli on the screen mice will then be assessed for visual discrimination, reversal learning, and attention. Utilising touchscreen technology may not only uncover new phenotypes in NL3 mice, but will allow us to investigate brain changes that underlie attention and behavioural flexibility. This will inform the future development of treatments for attentional deficits and impairments in behavioural flexibility in brain disorders such as ASD.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently presents with additional cognitive symptoms, including attentional deficits and perceptual processing deficits. Current estimates of comorbidity of ASD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) range from 41–78%. Preclinical animal models are important tools for studying the behavioural domains and biological underpinnings of autism, and potential treatment targets.  Many gene mutations that contribute to ASD have recently been identified. 

These findings have lead to the development of genetic mouse models which display behavioural phenotypes mimicking ASD traits. This project takes advantage of a mouse model expressing a gene mutation coding for the Neuroligin-3 (NL3) synaptic protein identified in ASD patients. We have shown that NL3 mice show impairments in social interaction, a key criteria for validating mouse models of ASD, but other aspects of their cognitive phenotype, including attentional performance and behavioural flexibility, are not well characterised.  

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