The Salk Institute for Biological Studies was awarded a $5.5 million research grant today to study Williams syndrome as a way to learn more about neurological development in children.
The award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development could help researchers untangle the connection between genes and social behavior.
“How the brain processes social information and integrates it with other forms of perception and learning is one of the major frontiers in neuroscience,” said Ursula Bellugi, director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the institute.
“Using Williams syndrome as the basis for a new approach to social neuroscience is exciting and promising, in part because its genetic basis is clearly understood, and it is associated with a very specific pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses and some puzzling paradoxes,” the professor said.
The condition is the result of a faulty recombination of cells during the development of sperm or egg cells, leaving nearly all sufferers lacking certain genes.
Victims are gregarious and attracted to strangers, but have difficulty understanding inanimate objects. They are beset with health problems and have a low IQ.
Bellugi said victims of the syndrome who are asked to draw a bicycle will instead draw its parts randomly across a piece of paper.
“Understanding the mechanisms and pathways underlying the organization of human social behavior is important in a wide variety of mental disorders,” Bellugi said. “By dissecting Williams syndrome, we hope to gain new insight into other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.”