There is increasing evidence for a strong genetic basis for autism, with many genetic models being developed in an attempt to replicate autistic symptoms in animals. However, current animal behaviour paradigms rarely match the social and cognitive behaviours exhibited by autistic individuals. Here we instead assay another functional domain – sensory processing – known to be affected in autism to test a novel genetic autism model in Drosophila melanogaster. We show similar visual response alterations and a similar development trajectory in Nhe3 mutant flies (total N=72) and in autistic human participants (total N=154). We report a dissociation between first- and second-order electrophysiological visual responses to steady-state stimulation in adult mutant fruit flies that is strikingly similar to the response pattern in human adults with ASD as well as that of a large sample of neurotypical individuals with high numbers of autistic traits. We explain this as a genetically driven, selective signalling alteration in transient visual dynamics. In contrast to adults, autistic children show a decrease in the first-order response that is matched by the fruit fly model, suggesting that a compensatory change in processing occurs during development. Our results provide the first animal model of autism comprising a differential developmental phenotype in visual processing.
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- animal model
- sensory processing
- visual system