Research Lead: Clinical


Social Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Genetic Investigation

[Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology]

Many scientists view a deficiency in the ability to recognize faces as a major component in social interaction disorders, such as those on the autism-spectrum. Previous research has shown that mammals identify members of their own species using social recognition cues; for rodents odor cues, and for primates visual cues. Previous research has also pointed to a specific receptor, the oxytocin receptor, as key for social recognition in rodents. Now, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Skuse and colleagues implicated the oxytocin receptor as critical for face recognition in humans. The authors recruited 198 Finnish and British families, who all had at least one child diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and tested each family member’s ability to: remember faces, discriminate facial emotions, and detect “direction of gaze.” Then, using a saliva sample, the authors analyzed genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor for each participant in order to understand if genetic differences in the receptor were associated with diminished social recognition ability. The authors found that high performance on the social recognition tasks was associated with normal genetic expression of the oxytocin receptor, while a specific genetic variation in the receptor, found in one-third of the participants, was associated with decreased performance. These findings implicate a specific genetic variant of the oxytocin receptor in social recognition disorders—in this case autism—as well as suggest that the gene encoding the oxytocin receptor plays an important role in human face recognition.

“Disruption of alcohol-related memories by mTORC1 inhibition prevents relapse”

[Clinical & Neuroscience]

Unable to overcome the gauntlet of cravings and withdrawal, alcohol abusers often succumb to relapse. However, a recent article in Nature Neuroscience describes a potential avenue of treatment that may aid with recovery. According to Barak et al., the tastes and smells associated with alcohol cue memories that evoke cravings, and thus spur relapse. Using alcohol dependent rats, Barak et al. found that by inhibiting a memory related pathway, they were able to mitigate cravings for alcohol in the rats. In the study, the researchers first identified the activation of the mTORC1 neural pathway as part of the memory reconsolidation process, and subsequently hypothesized that inhibiting this pathway could disrupt alcohol related memories and ultimately suppress relapse. As predicted, Barak and his team found that the mTORC1 inhibitor, rapamycin, effectively suppressed relapse in alcohol dependent rats that had been prompted with alcohol related taste and smell cues. This finding–that disruption of a neural pathway related to memory consolidation can lead to clinical benefits–has implications for the treatment of alcohol and substance abuse, as well as for clinical conditions involving recurrent memories, such as PTSD.

“The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics”

[Biological & Clinical Psychology]

Nature versus Nurture? You may be asking the wrong question. In their recent article in Clinical Psychological Science, Slavich and Cole review the emerging science of Human Social Genomics (HSG). This research suggests that human genetic expression may not be as fixed as previously thought, and that our genetic expression depends on the ever changing social and environmental factors that occur throughout an individual’s life. Furthermore, research indicates that genetic expression is not necessarily tied to objective factors in a person’s environment, but rather their subjective experience of the environment. Slavich and Cole also discuss the existence of a human metagenome; the idea that an individual’s genetic expression continuously influences and is influenced by the genetic expression of other individuals. HSG research represents a paradigm shift in how we understand gene-environment interactions. The implications are far reaching, especially for Clinical and Positive Psychology, where a better understanding of the dynamic gene-environment interaction may lead to an increased ability to prevent disease and create environments that promote well-being.