Erroneous inference based on a lack of preference within one group: Autism, mice, and the social approach task

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Abstract

The Social Approach Task is commonly used to identify sociability deficits when modeling liability factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in mice. It was developed to expand upon existing assays to examine distinct aspects of social behavior in rodents and has become a standard component of mouse ASD-relevant phenotyping pipelines. However, there is variability in the statistical analysis and interpretation of results from this task. A common analytical approach is to conduct within-group comparisons only, and then interpret a difference in significance levels as if it were a group difference, without any direct comparison. As an efficient shorthand, we named this approach EWOCs: Erroneous Within-group Only Comparisons. Here, we examined the prevalence of EWOCs and used simulations to test whether this approach could produce misleading inferences. Our review of Social Approach studies of high-confidence ASD genes revealed 45% of papers sampled used only this analytical approach. Through simulations, we then demonstrate how a lack of significant difference within one group often does not correspond to a significant difference between groups, and show this erroneous interpretation increases the rate of false positives up to 25%. Finally, we define a simple solution: use an index, like a social preference score, with direct statistical comparisons between groups to identify significant differences. We also provide power calculations to guide sample size in future studies. Overall, elimination of EWOCs and adoption of direct comparisons should result in more accurate, reliable, and reproducible data interpretations from the Social Approach Task across ASD liability models. Autism Res 2019, 12: 1171–1183.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1171-1183
Number of pages13
JournalAutism Research
Volume12
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

Keywords

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • mice
  • social behavior
  • social preference index
  • statistics
  • three-chambered social approach task

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