The oxytocin (OT) system is arguably the most viable target for pharmacologically enhancing social cognition in psychiatric disorders with compromised social cognition, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Central OT enhances key aspects of social behavior in animals, and intranasal (IN) OT modulates social cognition in humans. The mechanisms by which OT affects social cognition are not understood. We will launch a coordinated, interdisciplinary research program involving an outstanding team of investigators to test the hypothesis that OT enhances social cognition by increasing the salience and reinforcing value of social stimuli by modulating activity and functional connectivity of the amygdala and brain regions involved in reward. Project scientists will use cutting edge techniques to assess functional connectivity between brain regions during social interactions, responses of individual neurons in the amygdala to social stimuli, or social cognition in animals and humans. Projects 1 and 2 will use in vivo electrophysiology to examine the impact of OT on the neural representation of social stimuli in rodents and rhesus macaques. Project 3 will use cognitive tests to examine the impact of OT on social perception and social attunement in the primate. Project 4 will use cognitive testing and fMRI to examine the impact of OT on social cognition and neural activity in healthy and autistic humans. A Neurochemistry Core will provide vital services for the research projects and develop new tools for characterizing OT receptor expression in the brain. An Administrative Core will coordinate all Center related activities (seminar series, organizing meetings), will provide statistical consultation and coordinate outreach and training activities of Center personnel by strengthening existing relationships and forging new relationships with numerous organizations in the Atlanta area. As a result, the Center will create vibrant collaborative research, training and outreach environment that will have a national impact on mental health research. The data collected by Center faculty will have important translational implications that will directly impact novel strategies for pharmacologically treating social deficits in psychiatric disorders.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by core deficits in social cognition. Oxytocin as a key modulator of social information processing, and intranasal oxytocin has been proposed as a therapeutic for ASD. This Center team will use a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the neural mechanisms by which oxytocin enhances social information processing and social cognition, to inform future drug development.
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