Gene could have an effect on social behavior

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SALT LAKE CITY -- We see it all the time: One person always tends to stand out as the life of the party; outgoing and gregarious, even when meeting someone for the first time.

Now, University of Utah researchers have uncovered a genetic mechanism in our brain that may influence who and what we are in social settings.

Under the University of Utah's Actor Training Program, students portray a familiar sight. For example, actor Ryan Sharette plays "the life of the party." Whether captivating the group as a whole, or mixing in the crowd, his character is always comfortable, even with strangers.

Likewise, 22-year-old Craig Strasser is outgoing and gregarious, but he's not on stage. Though he has Williams Syndrome, which has left him with health issues and a lower IQ, he does very well in the social arena.

It was within this rare Williams Syndrome community that Dr. Julie Korenberg at the University of Utah's Brain Institute and her colleagues at the Salk Institute discovered something quite unique: The outgoing behavior appears to be linked with a small, missing piece of genetic material.

"That very small fragment of DNA that they are missing -- it's not mutated, just a different copy number -- is associated with the tendency to run up to strangers," Korenberg explained.

Genes influencing behavior? In theory, a genetic mechanism in all of us could trigger a hormone that turns us on or off socially.

"Now we have a hint. We know a little bit of where to look to find those controlling elements that may be controlling these neurocircuits," Korenberg said.

If that mechanism triggers an outgoing personality, what about the other extreme shyness?

Back at the actor training program, actor Sage Boyle portrays the partygoer who really doesn't want to be here. Bashful and awkward, she scans her watch looking for a way out of this uncomfortable situation.

Korenberg says understanding a genetic link to human behavior and its interplay on brain circuits is extremely significant. "That is the first step to making new therapies, and to a real understanding of what makes us who we are and perhaps to what makes us human," she said.

Despite the significance of this discovery, environment also plays a major role. Korenberg cautions: Even if a person is born with a genetic predisposition for a shy or outgoing personality, they may not end up that way in adulthood.


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Ed Yeates


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