Heritability of social behavioral phenotypes and preliminary associations with autism spectrum disorder risk genes in rhesus macaques: A whole exome sequencing study

Autism Res. 2022 Mar;15(3):447-463. doi: 10.1002/aur.2675. Epub 2022 Jan 29.


Nonhuman primates and especially rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) have been indispensable animal models for studies of various aspects of neurobiology, developmental psychology, and other aspects of neuroscience. While remarkable progress has been made in our understanding of influences on atypical human social behavior, such as that observed in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), many significant questions remain. Improved understanding of the relationships among variation in specific genes and variation in expressed social behavior in a nonhuman primate would benefit efforts to investigate risk factors, developmental mechanisms, and potential therapies for behavioral disorders including ASD. To study genetic influences on key aspects of social behavior and interactions-individual competence and/or motivation for specific aspects of social behavior-we quantified individual variation in social interactions among juvenile rhesus macaques using both a standard macaque ethogram and a macaque-relevant modification of the human Social Responsiveness Scale. Our analyses demonstrate that various aspects of juvenile social behavior exhibit significant genetic heritability, with estimated quantitative genetic effects similar to that described for ASD in human children. We also performed exome sequencing and analyzed variants in 143 genes previously suggested to influence risk for human ASD. We find preliminary evidence for genetic association between specific variants and both individual behaviors and multi-behavioral factor scores. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that spontaneous social behaviors performed by free-ranging juvenile rhesus macaques display significant genetic heritability and then to use exome sequencing data to examine potential macaque genetic associations in genes associated with human ASD.

Keywords: animal; autism spectrum disorder; developmental; disease models; macaca mulatta; neurobiology; psychology; social behavior; whole exome sequencing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / psychology
  • Exome Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta / psychology
  • Phenotype
  • Social Behavior