You know when you meet someone and feel an instant connection? New research conducted in the D.C. area may shed light on why we immediately click with some people — and clash with others.
Our genes may influence who we connect with and who we choose to avoid, University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers found. The findings may help us better understand some illnesses associated with mental health.
Using lab mice, scientists zeroed in on a region of the brain that regulates mood and motivation. They identified an enzyme called PDE11 that strongly influences which mice were drawn to each another.
Dr. Michy Kelly, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, explained.
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“When mice have the exact same version of this protein, they will prefer to interact with another mouse who shares that exact same DNA sequence for PDE11. When they have no PDE11, they will prefer to interact with the other mice that have no PDE11, as opposed to the quote unquote normal mice that have the normal two copies of the gene,” Kelly said.
Kelly is leading the research she began more than a decade ago. It all started with a comment from an undergraduate lab volunteer who worked with children with special needs.
“He made a comment to me one day that he felt like the children with autism prefer to interact with the other children who had autism over the normally developing children. And so that made me take a step back and rethink how we really conducted these studies in mice when we looked at their social interactions,” she said.
Kelly said she hopes the research’s clues about social interaction will one day help researchers recognize what goes awry in diseases associated with social withdrawal, so that better therapies can be developed.
“There are diseases like schizophrenia or autism where patients really suffer with how they interact with each other, how they can read each other's body language. And that really ends up having really significant effects on their quality of life and their ability to function in day-to-day life,” Kelly said. “So we do hope that eventually this type of work could lead to a novel therapeutic intervention, whether it be a behavioral therapy or an actual medicine that could help facilitate their ability to interact more effectively with other people.”
The researchers also hope the results could be used to better match patients and doctors with studies showing that compatibility can improve health outcomes.
A key question now is, How do mice detect the enzyme and gravitate toward others with the same genetic makeup?
It remains a mystery but smell and body movement have been ruled out.
Researchers think it may have more to do with how mice communicate or even how they look.
“There have been studies in humans that show we as humans will be more drawn to pictures of strangers when parts of our own face have been morphed into those pictures. So it could be that they're picking up on similarities and facial expressions,” Kelly said.
“That's the thing about science,” she said. “You get the one answer to one exciting question and it leads you to the next one.”