Do our Genes Control our Behaviour?

Williams syndrome, which is characterized by unique genetic markers and distinct behaviors, may actually hold the secrets to understanding other better-known disorders — including autism.

Those with Williams syndrome have a distinctive pattern of intellectual peaks and valleys, including low IQs, developmental delays and learning disabilities, all coupled with rich, imaginative capacity for language — and exuberantly social personalities.
“The behavior is quite consistent,” Bellugi, 80, a professor and director of Salk’s Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, says. “In terms of their social interest, their social drive, attraction to strangers, looking at faces, looking more intently at faces. We have this kind of social phenotype that we’ve been studying.”

“We’re on the brink of a whole new world”

— Bellugi

Williams syndrome is the perfect test case for studying the link between genes and behavior, Bellugi said. The disorder is very specific, occurring only when a certain cluster of genes is missing from one of two copies of chromosome 7.

“We’re only talking about something like 25 to 28 genes out of 30,000 genes in the brain,” Bellugi said. “And it’s always the same set of genes.”

The aim is understand better how genes affect traits as vastly different as the super-social behavior of the Waldner boys and the withdrawn, alienated behavior of many people with autism.

Read more at Super-social gene may hold clues to autism, other disorders.