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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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November 15, 2005

Isolating Excessive Friendliness For the Good of Humankind

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Excessive friendliness is one of the indications that people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WS) exhibit. Also known as 'elvin face syndrome' because of the general common appearance of upturned noses, wide mouths and small chins, WS is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 1 in 7500 people.

williams_person_medgen_genetics_utah_edu.jpgWS was first identified the early 1960s in a set of papers that described children with a unique set of facial, cognitive, heart defects and excessive social behavior. Since the discovery in the early 1990s that the syndrome is caused by the deletion of a tiny section of 28 genes on one copy of chromosome 7, researchers have been using imaging, cognitive tests, and genetic analysis to identify the different roles that the genes within the section play in the development and functioning of the brain.

In this week's Science, an excellent review article discusses the progress being made in understanding how these 28 genes, out of the thousands involved in brain development, cause specific aspects of the disorder. The news article "Friendly Faces and Unusual Minds" reviews our increasing understanding of multiple deficits associated with the disorder including: using fMRI to show that WS individuals show significantly lower neuronal activity in a part of the brain used by the spatial processing pathway of the visual system; using MRI scans have revealed structural details of WS-affected brains which revealed different folding patterns in specific areas of the brain; and a multitude of detailed genetic studies to isolate the specific contribution of different genes to the cognitive deficits presented by this disorder.

What I find most interesting about this disorder is the research being carried out on the excessive friendly behavior. Interestingly, while individuals with WS exhibit social fearlessness, they also "display high levels of nonsocial anxiety, such as fear of heights." The article describes a set of experiments that researchers performed using fMRI which showed that WS-affected individuals who were shown threatening faces exhibited a lower level of activation of the amygdala than control groups and a higher activation when shown when shown threatening scenes relative to controls. To date no one has determined the genetic link to these behavioral characteristics.

Last week at the inaugural opening of the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel postulated about a new approach to treating certain brain-related illnesses which I believe may open up an entirely new era of therapeutic development. For example, instead of just studying depression and treating its neurological manifestations, why not look at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, to something like the neurobiology of joy, and try to accentuate those characteristics as well.

Given this logic perhaps one of the values of studying and understanding extreme friendliness found in WS patients could be a new treatment for those with profound social anxiety. Perhaps, Kandel is on to something.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals


COMMENTS

1. David Mercer on November 16, 2005 3:40 AM writes...

I'd imagine that poor spatial processing would give me a fear of heights, too!

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2. Alcibiades on December 7, 2005 8:58 PM writes...

The cure for depression/social anxiety already exists. It's called alcohol (ethanol), or perhaps cocaine or MDMA--whatever you fancy. The point is, while the success rates of SSRIs are middling, and even when they "succeed" it is because they are hitting a statistically significant threshold and not necessarily making people fully adjusted (or better, phenomenally happy). Of course, the above drugs have terrible drawbacks to them that make them unsuitable for long-term antidepressant therapy. That said, their criminal status makes it difficult for scientists to study their structures, look at the origins of the positive effects they have, examine the mechanism, snip, snap, modify, and come up with some truly robust antidepressants.

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