Study connects the dots between the genes
"Study connects the dots between genes, brain, and human behaviour
An international collaboration maps genetic markers of brain development in people with Williams syndrome
Establishing links between genes, the brain, and human behavior is a central issue in cognitive neuroscience research, but studying how genes influence cognitive abilities and behavior as the brain develops from childhood to adulthood has proven difficult.
Now, an international team of scientists, led by Debra Mills a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University, has made inroads to understanding how genes influence brain plasticity for recognising faces and understanding language across development. The team studied individuals from 8 to 55 years of age with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome is associated with the deletion of about 25 genes from Chromosome 7. Although individuals with Williams experience developmental delays and learning disabilities, they are exceptionally sociable and possess remarkable verbal abilities and facial recognition skills in relation to their lower IQ. By measuring neural activity in the brain Mills and colleagues showed that the brain can organise itself differently to compensate for the genetic abnormality. That is, people with Williams syndrome show strong cognitive abilities for face and language processing, but by using different neural systems. This is called brain plasticity.
"We discovered, that in those with Williams syndrome, the brain understands language and recognises faces in a unique way." This pattern of brain activity was evident in individuals with Williams syndrome from early childhood through middle age. "This was a surprise because previous studies had suggested that part of the Williams brain functions normally in adulthood, with little understanding about how it developed." Another critical piece of the puzzle came from including in their study two adults with partial genetic deletions for Williams. By comparing brain activity from individuals with fewer genes deleted to those with full deletion in Williams and typically developing controls, we were able to see how very slight genetic differences affected brain activity separately for faces and language."
“By greatly narrowing the specific genes involved in social disorders, our findings will help uncover targets for treatment and provide measures by which these and other treatments are successful in alleviating the desperation of autism, anxiety and other disorders,” says Korenberg.
Julie Korenberg, a University of Utah professor and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute, led the genetics aspects on the new study. Ursula Bellugi, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, a pioneer in studying sociability in Williams syndrome, was also involved in the research.
The study was published in the November issue of Developmental Neuropsychology, Mills et al. (2013)
The full reference is:
Mills, D., Dai, L., Fishman, I. , Yam, A., Applebaum, G., St. George, M., Galaburda, A., Bellugi, U, & Korenberg, J. (2013). Genetic mapping of brain activity in Williams syndrome: ERP markers of face and language processing across development. Developmental Neuropsychology, 38:8, 613-642."
Publication date: 9 December 2013