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Scientists uncover new clues about brain function in human behavior

al brain imaging (fMRI) to study the amygdala and structures linked to it in 13 participants with Williams Syndrome who were selected to have normal intelligence (Williams Syndrome is usually associated with some degree of mental retardation or learning impairment) and compared to healthy controls. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, M.D., Ph.D., and Karen Berman, M.D., from the NIMH Genes, Cognition, and Psychosis Program, and colleagues, then showed participants pictures of angry or fearful faces. Such faces are known to be highly socially relevant danger signals that strongly activate the amygdala. The fMRI showed considerably less activation of the amygdala in participants with Williams Syndrome than in the healthy volunteers (see graphic below). These findings suggest that reduced danger signaling by the amygdala in response to social stimuli might be responsible for their fearlessness in social interactions.

Next, researchers showed the study participants pictures of threatening scenes (a burning building or a plane crash), which did not have any people or faces in them and thus had no immediate social component. In remarkable contrast to the response to faces, the amygdala response to threatening scenes was abnormally increased in participants with Williams Syndrome (see graphic below), mirroring their severe non-social anxiety.

"The amygdala response perfectly reflected the unique profile of social and non-social anxiety in Williams Syndrome," said Meyer-Lindenberg. "Because our data showed that the amygdala did still function, although abnormally, in Williams Syndrome, we wondered whether it might be its regulation by other brain regions that was the cause of the amygdala abnormalities."

To investigate this, the scientists looked at the whole brain to identify other regions where reactivity was different between Williams's participants and healthy volunteers. They identified three areas of the prefrontal cortex, located in the front part of th
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Source:NIH/National Institute of Mental Health


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