Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009 | After years of studying people with a rare genetic disorder, researchers at San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies have identified a gene that plays a role in determining our social behavior. The discovery may not only help us better understand how and why we interact with each other, but also be a stepping stone for treatments of depression, anxiety and other social disorders.
Salk neuroscientists Julie R. Korenberg and Ursula Bellugi were able to identify the gene through their study of people with Williams syndrome, a disorder characterized by developmental problems, specific facial features, low IQs and an overly trusting and engaging personality. From a young age, children with Williams syndrome are very polite and crave close social interactions with others.
The unique characteristics of people with this disorder provide a window into the genetics of how we interact socially, said Korenberg, director of the Center for Integrated Neurosciences and Human Behavior at the University of Utah’s Brain Institute and Salk Institute adjunct professor. “There isn’t another syndrome that shows this kind of behavior,” she said.
“So I am like (infamous bank robber) Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money is.’ I study Williams syndrome because that is where small changes in human genes are associated with changes in human behavior.”
The discovery, which was published this month in the online edition of the American Journal of Medical Genetics, is being heralded in neuroscience circles for providing a greater understanding of the basic biology of social interactions. “This is major because almost all of the world’s problems have to do with inappropriate social interactions,” said Sue Carter, a behavioral neural endocrinologist and director of the Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
“Our economy is sinking because we can’t trust each other. Wars are caused by misunderstandings of people’s social intentions. What [Korenberg] is doing is dissecting this problem of what is social behavior and where does it exist in our genome?”