Animal models play pivotal roles in understanding the relationship between behaviors and underlying brain circuits. One of the key features of autism is a deficit in social communication, including vocal communication. The primary animal models for autism research have been rodents because of the advantage of genetic manipulations. However, rodents lack certain social communication behaviors exhibited by primates, such as eye contact and high-level vocal communication. There is therefore a great need to develop new animal models, preferably nonhuman primate models, for autism research.
Xiaoqin Wang and his team at Johns Hopkins University have been studying auditory and vocal processing in a highly vocal and social primate, the common marmoset, for the past two decades and have developed a number of neurophysiological techniques for this species1, 2.
Marmosets provide particular advantages for autism research because they have a relatively short developmental period and their rich social behaviors remain largely intact in captivity. Recent progress in creating transgenic marmosets makes this primate species especially attractive as a model system for autism research. However, traditional approaches in primate research are not adequate to study social behaviors and underlying brain mechanisms.
Wang and his team will develop automated behavioral analysis and wireless neural recording techniques for the marmoset in order to study its behavior and brain function in a social setting. The proposed approach to quantitatively characterize the marmoset’s vocal behaviors in a natural housing environment is a paradigm shift in how social behaviors are studied in laboratory conditions. The new techniques developed in this project could be used to characterize communicative behaviors of both normal marmosets and marmosets carrying autism-associated gene variants.