Last year, while waiting to catch a plane from Washington DC to San Antonio TX, I was joined by a young gentleman, around 24 or 25 years of age and his super-glamorous mom. Initially I was somewhat surprised that they had chosen to sit right next to me, given that the departure area was otherwise empty.
Within seconds he had struck up a conversation, within minutes I was practically his new BFF and before the flight was called he was holding my hand, whispering in my ear and grinning like a teenager.
Before you start thinking “wedding bells” or “cougar time”, what I learned from his mom, was that he had Williams syndrome. What I learned later, after googling the condition, was that people with Williams syndrome have an unusually gregarious personality. They view everyone as their friend, and it’s not unusual for them to rush up to total strangers and strike up conversations as though they are old acquaintances.
Those with the disorder look at the world through a unique lens. Despite their desire to befriend people they have high levels of generalized anxiety poor social judgment, disturbed peer relationships and altered responses to fearful and happy faces. Their average IQ is 60, they experience severe spatial-visual problems, and suffer from cardiovascular and other health issues. They also have an affinity for music.
This week, I learned that the latter trait is helping scientists shed light on the mystery of emotion and human interaction. Social and emotional responses are so fundamental to human behavior that they are often taken for granted. However, the genetic and neurobiological bases of social behavior are largely unknown, as are the mechanisms for disruptions in social behavior and emotional regulation that appear throughout the lifespan as features of mental illnesses.
In a study led by Julie R. Korenberg, Ph.D., M.D. one of the world’s leading experts in genetics, brain, and behavior of Williams syndrome, people with and without Williams syndrome listened to music while researchers gauged emotional response by measuring the release of oxytocin and arginine vasopressin – two hormones associated with emotion.
The study, published in PLoS One, signals a paradigm shift both for understanding human emotional and behavioral systems and expediting the treatments of illnesses such as Williams syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and possibly even autism.
The study is also the first to reveal new genes that control emotional responses and to show that arginine vasopressin is involved in the response to music.
The trial involved 21 participants – 13 with Williams syndrome and a control group of 8 without the disorder. Before the music was played, participants’ blood was drawn to determine a baseline level for oxytocin. Those with Williams syndrome had three times as much of the hormone as those without the syndrome.
While other studies have examined how oxytocin affects emotion when artificially introduced into people through nasal sprays, this is the one of the first significant studies to measure naturally occurring changes in oxytocin levels in rapid, real-time as people undergo an emotional response.
Researchers asked the first participant to listen to the 1950’s Elvis Presley classic, “Love Me Tender.” The woman showed no outward response to the song. So, to elicit a greater response from the remaining study participants, the researchers invited them to bring along their favorite music. Many of them chose heavy metal, but again, there was little outward response to the music.
However, when the blood samples were analyzed, they showed that oxytocin levels, and to a lesser degree arginine vasopressin (AVP), had not only increased but begun to bounce among the William syndrome group. In contrast, both oxytocin and AVP levels remained largely unchanged as those without Williams syndrome listened to music.
Interestingly, the oxytocin level in the woman who’d listened to “Love Me Tender” skyrocketed compared to the levels of participants who listened to different music.
Korenberg believes the blood analyses strongly indicate that oxytocin and AVP are not regulated correctly in people with Williams syndrome, and that the behavioral characteristics unique to people with the condition are related to this problem.
To ensure accuracy of results, study participants were also asked to place their hands in 60° Fahrenheit water to test for negative stress. The same results were produced as when they listened to music. Those with Williams syndrome experienced an increase in oxytocin and AVP, while those without the syndrome did not.
In addition, study participants took three standard social behavior tests that evaluated willingness to approach and speak to strangers, emotional states, and various areas of adaptive and problem behavior. Those test results suggest that increased levels of oxytocin are linked to both increased desire to seek social interaction and decreased ability to process social cues.
“The association between abnormal levels of oxytocin and AVP and altered social behaviors found in people with Williams Syndrome points to surprising, entirely unsuspected deleted genes involved in regulation of these hormones and human sociability,” Korenberg said. “It also suggests that the simple characterization of oxytocin as ‘the love hormone’ may be an overreach. The data paint a far more complicated picture.”
However, the results of the study offer great hope. By regulating levels of oxytocin and vasopressin it should be possible to relieve suffering and improve the lives of those with Williams syndrome.
In the meantime, this study certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “mood music.”