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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 3;109(14):E860-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1114774109. Epub 2012 Mar 12.

The Williams syndrome chromosome 7q11.23 hemideletion confers hypersocial, anxious personality coupled with altered insula structure and function.

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Section on Integrative Neuroimaging, National Institute of Mental Health, Intramural Research Program, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


Although it is widely accepted that genes can influence complex behavioral traits such as human temperament, the underlying neurogenetic mechanisms remain unclear. Williams syndrome (WS), a rare disorder caused by a hemizygous deletion on chromosome 7q11.23, including genes important for neuronal migration and maturation (LIMK1 and CLIP2), is typified by a remarkable hypersocial but anxious personality and offers a unique opportunity to investigate this open issue. Based on the documented role of the insula in mediating emotional response tendencies and personality, we used multimodal imaging to characterize this region in WS and found convergent anomalies: an overall decrease in dorsal anterior insula (AI) gray-matter volume along with locally increased volume in the right ventral AI; compromised white-matter integrity of the uncinate fasciculus connecting the insula with the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex; altered regional cerebral blood flow in a pattern reminiscent of the observed gray-matter alterations (i.e., widespread reductions in dorsal AI accompanied by locally increased regional cerebral blood flow in the right ventral AI); and disturbed neurofunctional interactions between the AI and limbic regions. Moreover, these genetically determined alterations of AI structure and function predicted the degree to which the atypical WS personality profile was expressed in participants with the syndrome. The AI's rich anatomical connectivity, its transmodal properties, and its involvement in the behaviors affected in WS make the observed genetically determined insular circuitry perturbations and their association with WS personality a striking demonstration of the means by which neural systems can serve as the interface between genetic variability and alterations in complex behavioral traits.

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