Professor and Director
Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience
Salk Founders' Chair
Ursula Bellugi, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, is a pioneer in the study of the biological foundation of language. She is regarded as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language, because her work was the first to show it is a true language, complete with grammar and syntax, and is processed by many of the same parts of the brain that process spoken language. Her work has led to the discovery that the left hemisphere of the human brain becomes specialized for languages, whether spoken or signed, a striking demonstration of neuronal plasticity.
Constantly seeking new avenues for understanding the ties between neural and cognitive functions, Bellugi is currently studying individuals with Williams Syndrome. This puzzling genetically based disorder leaves language, facial recognition and social skills remarkably well-preserved in contrast to severe inadequacy in other cognitive aptitudes. The search for the underlying biological basis for this disorder is providing new opportunities for understanding how brain structure and function relate to cognitive capabilities.
To children with Williams syndrome, people are much more comprehensible than inanimate objects. Despite myriad health problems, generally low IQs and high levels of anxiety, they are extremely gregarious and irresistibly drawn to strangers, and they insist on making eye contact. This strange mix of mental peaks and valleys allows Ursula Bellugi and her collaborators to untangle the connections between genes, brain function and prosocial behavior.
In 2011, Bellugi and her collaborators, including Salk professors Fred Gage and Terrence Sejnowski and Salk adjunct professor Julie Korenberg, were awarded a renewal of an NIH program project grant to link the unusual prosocial behavior typified by the condition to its underlying neurobiological and molecular genetic basis. The researchers work in such disparate fields as social cognition, molecular genetics, stem cell biology, neuronal architecture and neuroimaging and are tackling the disorder from several directions.
Williams syndrome is caused by the absence of a tiny set of genes on one copy of chromosome 7, presenting a strong relationship between genes and altered behaviors. Virtually everyone with Williams syndrome is missing the same genes, but some rare individuals retain one or more genes that most people with the condition have lost, providing clues to the function of those genes and gene networks.
Bellugi and her colleagues are charting how these genetic aberrations may lead to the unusual cognitive and social behaviors characteristic of Williams syndrome. This includes using imaging technologies to visualize how the gene deletions alter brain activity, mapping the neural circuits affected by the disorder, and using stem cell reprogramming techniques to study the cellular aspects of the syndrome in the laboratory with neurons derived from patients' skin cells. Recently, her team reported that the system that regulates two hormones associated with emotions, oxytocin and vasopressin, appears to be altered in people with Williams syndrome. This link between genes, hormones and behavior is an unprecedented opportunity to study how genes influence social behaviors and their role in Williams and other mental disorders, such as autism and anxiety. Understanding Williams syndrome also may provide fundamental insights into the genetic mechanisms and neural circuits responsible for human social behavior.