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Have you ever seen a mouse with a mohawk, or mohican, hairstyle? Scientists at New York University’s Langone Medical Centre noticed some mice with unusual mohawk-like hairstyles - the result of over-grooming by their fellow animals - and investigated further, as this kind of repetitive behaviour is a hallmark of the human developmental condition autism.
Publishing their results in the journal Nature, the scientists were studying mice that had been genetically engineered to lack a gene encoding a protein called Cntnap4. The protein was previously known to be involved in special brain cells called interneurons, in people with autism. The team discovered that knocking out Cntnap4 affects two special chemical signals in the brain, called GABA and dopamine, which send messages between nerve cells.
They discovered that the mohawk mice had less GABA, which normally damps down signals in the brain, and too much dopamine, which gives pleasurable sensations. The researchers think their findings might shed light on some of the underlying biological processes in the brain that are at work in people with autism, and potentially point to treatments in the future.