Social dysfunction is an intractable problem in a wide spectrum of psychiatric illnesses, undermining patients? capacities for employment, independent living, and maintaining meaningful relationships. Identifying common markers of social impairment across disorders and understanding their mechanisms are prerequisites to developing targeted neurobiological treatments that can be applied productively across diagnoses and illness stages to improve functional outcome. This project focuses on eye gaze perception, the ability to accurately and efficiently discriminate others? gaze direction, as a potential biomarker of social functioning that cuts across psychiatric diagnoses. This premise builds on both the monkey and human literatures showing gaze perception as a basic building block supporting higher-level social communication and social development, and reports of abnormal gaze perception in multiple psychiatric conditions accompanied by prominent social dysfunction (e.g., psychosis-spectrum disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, social phobia). A large sample (n= 225) of adolescent and young adult (age 14-30) psychiatric patients (regardless of diagnosis) with various degrees of impaired social functioning, and 75 demographically matched healthy controls will be recruited for this study. Participant?s psychiatric phenotypes, cognition, social cognition, and community functioning will be dimensionally characterized. Eye gaze perception will be assessed using a psychophysical task, and two metrics (precision, self-referential bias) that respectively tap into gaze perception disturbances at the visual perceptual and interpretation levels, independent of general deficits, will be derived using Bayesian modeling. A subset of the participants (150 psychiatric patients, 75 healthy controls) will additionally undergo multimodal fMRI to determine the functional and structural brain network features of altered gaze perception.
The specific aims of this project are three fold:
Aim 1) Determine the generality of gaze perception disturbances in psychiatric patients with prominent social dysfunction; 2) Map behavioral indices of gaze perception disturbances to dimensions of psychiatric phenotypes and core functional domains; and 3) Identify the neural correlates of altered gaze perception in psychiatric patients with social dysfunction. Successfully completing these specific aims will identify the specific basic deficits, clinical profile, and underlying neural circuits associated with social dysfunction that can be used to guide targeted, personalized treatments, thus advancing NIMH?s Strategic Objective 1 (describe neural circuits associated with mental illnesses and map the connectomes for mental illnesses) and Objective 3 (develop new treatments based on discoveries in neuroscience and behavioral science).

Public Health Relevance

The ability to accurately and efficiently discriminate others? gaze direction is critical to social development and real-world functioning, and is disrupted in many psychiatric conditions. The goals of this study are to investi- gate how widespread the problem of altered gaze perception is among psychiatric patients with difficulties in social functioning, understand how this problem contributes to different psychiatric symptoms, and discover the cognitive and brain mechanisms underlying this problem. The results of this study are expected to guide the development of treatment strategies that aim to improve social functioning and quality of life for individuals ex- periencing socially debilitating psychiatric conditions regardless of diagnosis.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Neural Basis of Psychopathology, Addictions and Sleep Disorders Study Section (NPAS)
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Leitman, David I
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University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Schools of Medicine
Ann Arbor
United States
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