[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 12-Aug-2013
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Contact: Lisa Newbern
lisa.newbern@emory.edu
404-727-7709
Emory Health Sciences

Yerkes Research Center receives 5-year, $9.5 million grant to study oxytocin

Goal is to improve social cognition in humans who have autism

The Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has received a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to establish a Silvio O. Conte Center in Neuroscience Research to study oxytocin, a brain chemical known for forming bonds between mother and baby.

Emory's Conte Center of Oxytocin and Social Cognition is the first NIH-funded center to explore how normal brain chemistry involved in mother-infant bonding and attachment affects brain communication and mental processing of social experiences in animals and humans, including those with autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

Larry Young, PhD, chief of the Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Yerkes Research Center, director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory University and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in Emory's School of Medicine, will lead the Conte Center team that includes researchers at Yerkes and Emory as well as the University of Arizona and the University of Washington. The team's goal is to find answers that will facilitate the development of novel treatment strategies focused on improving social cognition in autism.

The Conte Center program is named for Silvio A. Conte, a Massachusetts congressman who served from 1959 until his death in 1991, and was always a champion of neuroscience research and the severely mentally ill.

"To receive a grant of this caliber is a great honor and one that brings responsibility to make a difference," says Young. "Our research team will explore in detail the mechanisms by which oxytocin acts in the brain to promote social information processing and social interactions. With this team, the resources available at Yerkes and Emory, and the tremendous financial support from the NIMH, we are better positioned than ever to optimize new treatment strategies for improving social function in disorders such as autism and schizophrenia."

Individuals with autism or schizophrenia have impairments in social functioning that a malfunction in chemical communication within and between brain areas involved in processing social information and reward is thought to cause. Oxytocin is considered the most viable target for pharmacologically enhancing social cognition in disorders characterized by compromised social cognition. While most know of oxytocin for its role in forming the powerful bond between mother and baby, recent studies have demonstrated oxytocin also plays a more general role in regulating how humans relate to each other.

The five-year grant will focus on four projects:

Two of them will examine the impact of oxytocin on brain activity in response to social stimuli on rodents and rhesus monkeys; one will examine the impact of oxytocin on social perception and social attunement in rhesus monkeys; and another will examine the impact of oxytocin on social cognition and neural activity in healthy and autistic humans.

Young and his team will use prairie voles (known for their monogamous relationships), a rat model of autism, rhesus macaques and human participants to explore how oxytocin modulates communication between the brain's reward centers and circuits involved in processing of social information. Using Emory's extensive imaging capabilities, the team will analyze human brain images to compare how oxytocin affects the salience of social stimuli, social reward and brain activation patterns. Complementary studies will record neural activity in rodents and primates following oxytocin administration in relation to social interactions.

In addition to these four focused research projects, the Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition will facilitate outreach activities to local schools and the community. The Conte Center will be integrated in the CTSN to provide seed grant funding for new research on social neuroscience and autism.

"This latest grant affirms the critical role the Yerkes Research Center and Emory play in shaping social neuroscience research and leading the way to discoveries that will result in new and more effective treatments for disorders characterized by social impairments," says Stuart Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes Research Center. "I can think of no one more qualified and dedicated than Dr. Young to lead this new Conte Center for Yerkes, Emory and all those who are affected by social disorders."

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For eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health–funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate quality animal care.

Within the fields of microbiology and immunology, neurologic diseases, neuropharmacology, behavioral, cognitive and developmental neuroscience, and psychiatric disorders, the center's research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases; treat drug addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases; unlock the secrets of memory; determine how the interaction between genetics and society shape who we are; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The CTSN mission is to bring together basic and clinical scientists in order to facilitate the translation of our understanding of the social brain into novel treatments for social deficits in psychiatric disorders, including autism.



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