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How better understanding Williams syndrome could advance autism research

New research on how the brains of people with Williams syndrome process images of faces could shed more light on autism.

In a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, a team of Stanford scientists ran functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 16 adults with Williams syndrome in an effort to understand why individuals diagnosed with the disorder exhibit a fascination with faces. The results showed that the participants' brains produced an enormous amount of activity in the fusiform face area, which processes information about faces.

Because people with Williams syndrome are all missing the same genes, the researchers are using their findings to explore whether the heightened brain activity they've detected is rooted in subjects' genetic makeup. This additional information could help determine the degree to which genetics and experience shape social behavior in Williams syndrome and contribute to the "nature vs. nurture" discussion.

Allan Reiss, MD, explains in a release how the research might offer insight into autism:

If we understand how genes and environment affect the development of face processing, that could teach us something of real value about people who have autism or fragile X syndrome, conditions associated with a tendency to look away from faces.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Bangor University contributed to this study.

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