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November 12, 2001

Mills continues investigation of Williams syndrome

By Rachel Robertson


For the past 15 years, Debra Mills has been investigating a mysterious genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. This syndrome is puzzling to scientists because, although individuals with Williams have cognitive deficits, they also retain some normal cognitive functioning, specifically in the areas of language and face recognition.

The similarities among individuals who have Williams syndrome are also remarkable. In addition to the similar cognitive abilities, they also share similar facial features, such as a turned-up nose that gives them an elfin-like appearance. They are also characterized as being very social: warm, friendly and making a lot of eye contact.

The disorder is caused by a microdeletion on chromosome 7 and is associated with abnormalities in the posterior regions of the brain, especially the smaller parietal lobes. The accompanying cognitive deficits are related to spatial abilities, such as difficulty drawing and getting around town.

Individuals with Williams syndrome also have general mental retardation and usually are unable to live on their own or go through regular schooling.

Although much can be learned from the deficits caused by this syndrome, Mills, associate professor of psychology, is particularly interested in the brain systems that mediate the preserved cognitive functions of these individuals.

“Are these relatively spared cognitive functions normally organized in the brain?” Mills asked. “Or do they show abnormal organization because of, or perhaps as a consequence of, the other abnormal brain structures. Are those also abnormally organized? To what extent is there plasticity for these functions?”

Mills’ research, done in collaboration with colleagues such as the Salk Institute’s Ursula Bellugi, has used the Event Related Potential (ERP) technique to record the electrical activity of the brain. This technique is useful in detecting activity in response to a particular stimulus because it is time-locked to specific events and averaged across many trials. That means extraneous brain activity is averaged out, leaving only the activity for the particular stimulus under examination, such as an image of a face or a word in a sentence.

Mills has found that in individuals with the disorder, the early part of the ERP wave form (first 200 milliseconds after stimulus) has a characteristic signature for both faces and language. “It’s almost like a marker for abnormal brain function,” she said.

The abnormal ERP is intriguing because it also is present in the spared processes; the signature ERP has been found in every subject with Williams syndrome tested in the study, which includes 60 adults and 20 children, and not in any other population that has been tested (normal adults, patients with brain lesions, individuals with Down syndrome, and both language-impaired and normally functioning children).

Working with Julie Korenberg, a geneticist at UCLA, Mills is using specific cases to form a picture of Williams syndrome. “One way we are trying figure out this puzzle is by looking at individuals that have a partial deletion of the area on chromosome 7 associated with Williams and then look at their cognitive profiles and the brain structures,” Mills said.

They have studied one person who has only part of the deletion typical of Williams Syndrome. This man is interesting because, although he has several features in common with other people with Williams (facial features, increased sociability), he has preserved spatial abilities.

Using magnetic-resonance imaging to monitor this man’s brain, another of Mills’ collaborators, Allan Reiss at Stanford University, found that the posterior regions of his brain—those associated with spatial abilities—are relatively normal, but areas associated with auditory-language processing are abnormally large, just like those in other individuals with Williams. Interestingly, they showed the ERP pattern characteristic of Williams syndrome for language, but the ERP pattern he displayed for face processing was normal.

Mills explained: “So all that information hangs together to say that this area of the gene [that he retains] is probably responsible for the abnormal spatial abilities in Williams.”

Mills, who arrived on campus this fall, and her colleagues are funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Most of the testing has been and will be performed at the University of California-San Diego.

However, Mills also will test subjects in her newly outfitted lab at Emory, as well as analyze data and write up results. This work will be highlighted in the PBS show “Scientific American Frontiers,” hosted by Alan Alda, on Nov. 13.


Back to Emory Report November 12, 2001