Thanks to one charming little girl, researchers say they have pinpointed a gene that’s key to developing normal social behavior.
The 9-year-old has a unique form of Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects roughly 1 in 10,000 people. One of the syndrome’s most distinguishing behaviors is an immediate, exuberant friendliness, even toward strangers.
In this aspect, Williams syndrome seems to be the opposite of autism, which is defined partly by extreme social aversion and a preference for interacting with objects over people. But the disorders are similar in other ways: people with either condition have tremendous difficulty forming long-lasting social relationships, for instance, and have cognitive deficits and high levels of anxiety.
Studying the relatively well-defined genetics of Williams syndrome may help unravel the poorly understood genetic and neurobiological roots of autism, researchers say.
“Both of [the disorders] are strong alterations of social behavior. Those are, I think at least in part, involving the same system,” says lead investigator Julie Korenberg, director of the Center for Integrated Neurosciences and Human Behavior at the University of Utah.
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SFARI, August 2009.