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New Social Neuroscience Grants to Help Unravel Autism, Anxiety Disorders

Science Update

How genes and the environment shape the brain circuitry underlying social behavior is among the questions being addressed by three newly NIMH-funded studies. The basic science grants, totaling more than $6 million over 4-5 years, are aimed at understanding how the brain processes social behaviors — processes which are disrupted in autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses.

“By building bridges between fields that usually don’t talk much to each other, we’re hoping to translate progress in this rapidly growing area into help for people with mental illnesses,” said Kevin Quinn, Ph.D., chief of NIMH’s Behavioral Science and Integrative Neuroscience Research Branch, Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science.

The three grants combine neurobiological approaches with studies of social behaviors in both animals and humans.

  • Pat Levitt, Ph.D., and colleagues, Vanderbilt University, will probe the mechanisms of gene-environment interactions in social development, focusing on five brain genes implicated in autism, including genes that code for oxytocin and the MET receptor tyrosine kinase. In mice and human infants, they will determine the relationship between early social learning and later sociability.
  • Edward Brodkin, M.D., and colleagues, University of Pennsylvania, will follow-up on the clue that people with autism tend to have abnormally enlarged brains in childhood and an underdeveloped corpus callosum. Working with inbred mouse strains, they will explore whether similar anatomical features go along with reduced sociability — and the interplay of genetic and environmental influences on these traits.
  • Paul Whalen, Ph.D., and colleagues, Dartmouth College, will use functional neuroimaging in humans to build on studies showing how fearful facial expressions trigger the amygdala and related brain anxiety-processing circuitry. They will explore these questions using human social stimuli as conditioning cues.

The grants were awarded to investigators responding to a request for proposals  inspired by a 2005 workshop convened to help identify research opportunities in the social neuroscience of mental health.