New Studies Offer Greater Insight into How the Brain Processes
Oct 19, 2009CHICAGO — Humans are very social creatures and the ability to identify and “read” faces is central to all successful social interactions. Research released today on how the brain recognizes and processes facial data contributes to our understanding of social interaction and how it goes awry in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, as well as Williams, Rett’s, Fragile X, and Timothy syndromes. This research also adds to a relatively new and growing area of inquiry — social neuroscience, which investigates the brain mechanisms underlying social processes and behaviors.
The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2009, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
The new findings show that:
• People with agenesis of the corpus callosum (AgCC), a rare neurological disorder, look at faces in a way that impairs their ability to determine people’s emotions. This finding offers one explanation for why individuals with AgCC have such difficulty picking up on the social cues of others and suggests a possible factor in the development of autism, a more common neurological disorder with similar symptoms (Lynn K. Paul, PhD, abstract 209.8, see attached summary).
• The response pattern of neurons in the visual areas of the brain can predict the ethnicity of the person being looked at, laying the foundation for understanding differences in the way our brains represent faces from people of our own race versus faces from other races (Vaidehi Natu, abstract 168.13, see attached summary).
• Recognizing gender is an important social cue and research into female macaque monkeys shows that humans are not alone in distinguishing gender from facial images alone (Kari Hoffman, PhD, abstract 168.2, see attached summary).
Other recent research findings being discussed at the meeting show that:
• Researchers have identified mutations in synaptic proteins in some people with autism. These findings suggest that autism affects the wiring of the developing brain (Thomas C. Südhof, MD, see attached speaker’s summary).
• Williams syndrome, a hyper-social disorder often called the opposite of autism, is caused by a genetic mutation. Research into the disorder may provide new insight on how genes are translated in the brain to produce cognitive and behavioral features (Karen F. Berman, MD, see attached speaker’s summary).
“The brain makes it possible to successfully communicate and interact with our surroundings,” said press conference moderator David Amaral, research director of the M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California, Davis, PhD, an expert on neural development disorders. “Social neuroscience highlights the fundamental role of communication on a cellular and molecular level, and further research will inform us about the mind, behavior,
and neurodevelopmental disorders.”
This research was supported by national funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organization.
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