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Graduate students research link between brain activity, clinical disorders

As many students traveled the world for internships, study abroad opportunities and family vacations this summer, a group of researchers from the University’s psychology department was making headway on a unique study that combines neuroscience and molecular genetics research.

Graduate students in the Social Neuroscience Lab working under Asst. Psychology Prof. James Morris are working to explain variations in the way individuals process social information by analyzing epigenetics, processes that change the function of a gene but do not change its DNA sequence.

The little-studied connections between brain activity and epigenetics could help explain clinical disorders like those on the autism spectrum, Arts & Sciences Graduate student Tyler Santander said.

After securing a National Science Foundation grant last fall, the group is now studying associations between participants’ brain activity information gathered by functional magnetic resonance imaging and the variation in the epigenetics of their oxytocin receptor gene, a neurotransmitter that plays a strong role in social perception.

Study participants are asked to complete a number of tasks that are designed to mimic human traits and behavior, while their brain activity is measured by the fMRI.

“One test is a dot pattern that may be random at first, but then might look like one dot is chasing another dot,” Santander said. “When human traits like these are inferred, regional differences in brain activity can be seen.”

The fMRI data, which is collected every two seconds, is then normalized and the researchers are able to construct statistical models from the data. These models can then be compared and contrasted against average brain activity for certain medical conditions.

After completing the imaging tasks, participants are sent to a lab to have blood drawn. The lab scans the blood for its genotype, or genetic makeup, and then sequences the DNA, which allows the researchers to see the specific order of nucleotides in the DNA.

Once that data has been collected, the researchers look along the oxytocin receptor gene to see the percentage of methylation at each site. Methylation is an epigenetic process which if found at high levels has been associated with certain autism spectrum disorders.

This data gives researchers the ability to compare the brain activity and genetic data side by side. “The possibilities are endless,” Santander said. “We can look at all the subjects together, or split them into groups and look at the interaction between DNA methylation and brain activity.”

The grant provides the funds to collect data from 225 subjects, Santander said, but so far the team has only collected about one-fifth of the data, meaning any findings so far are extremely preliminary.