Research

 

Social interaction is dependent on a collection of perceptual and cognitive skills that develop over a lifetime. Social demands on the human brain are uniquely complex, requiring advanced abilities to recognize, manipulate and respond to socially relevant information, including the ability to construct representations between self and other and to use the representations to flexibly guide our own behavior. The Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Virginia seeks to characterize neural systems underlying both normal and abnormal forms of social cognition and interpersonal functioning - phenomena that are both highly variable within the broader population and implicated in severely debilitating affective and neurodevelopmental disorders.

We take a multimodal approach that includes the use of functional MRI, scalp-recorded event-related potentials, eye-gaze monitoring, genetics, epigenetics, hormonal and behavioral measures. We also take a lifespan approach and have collected data from participants ranging from a few months of age all the way to 80 years old. Current themes in the lab are summarized below. 

The role of the epigenetically controlled endogenous oxytocin system on social cognition  

The lab is currently studying how DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification, of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR ) modulates the functional organization and activity of the human brain on a variety of sensory and cognitive tasks. These tasks tap into several avenues of psychological inquiry, including seletive attention, biological motion, affective processing, associative learning, and recognition memory. Our previous work has shown that DNA methylation of OXTR is related to information processing that is social in nature, represented in brain regions canonically implicated in social perception (including but not limited to the fusiform gyrus, superior temporal suclus, temporoparietal junction) as well as functional networks distributed across cortical structures.

From this research, the common theme from the data suggests that DNA methylation of OXTR is an informative biomarker for human social behavior. We are particularly interested in identifying the individual behavioral differences that emerge downstream from these neural endophenotypes, such as gaze behaviors, social interactions, or face memory skills, and how these differences may dynamically update across development from infancy to old age.

Early development of social brain function

The first year of life constitutes a time of rapid and sweeping changes in behavioral repertoire, cognitive ability, and neural architecture. During this time, the developing infant is confronted with the daunting task of making sense of her world as she is bombarded with competing, fluctuating, and often ambiguous external stimuli. Understanding how the brain comes to form accurate models of the external world and generate appropriate behavioral responses is a significant and critical question of widespread multidisciplinary interest. Social information represents a particularly important and complex class of stimuli that evoke unique neural and behavioral responses beginning in infancy. Newborns display an attentional bias to socially relevant cues such as faces and voices, which is posited to reflect a broadly-tuned biological predisposition that sets the stage for subsequent experience-dependent perceptual and neural specialization.

An ongoing study in collaboration with the UVA Baby Lab aims to determine how epigenetic variability in the oxytocinergic system impacts neural variability during social perception and the development of social behavior beginning in infancy. The study incorporates the use of saliva samples for epigenetic analysis, a free play period between mom and baby, eye-tracking, and electroencephalography (EEG) to determine how differences in gene expression and neural activity shape social characteristics of 4-, 8-, and 12-month-old infants.