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Imagine living in a world of daily struggles with conversations, encounters, and relationships— where expressing feelings and exchanging information results in overwhelming anxiety. This is the world for tens of millions of individuals suffering from social dysfunctions associated with autism, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. 

Social dysfunction is a general term to describe emotional problems related to social situations, such as shyness. It differs from social anxiety disorder, which is a medically diagnosed chronic condition where an individual experiences intense anxiety during everyday social interactions. 

Melissa Franch, a doctoral student at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, wants to improve our understanding of the complex relationship between the brain and social behavior.

“When you reflect on life’s moments, your fondest memories probably include your family and friends,” Melissa says. “Most of our enjoyable and successful experiences do not occur in isolation. In fact, now—during the COVID-19 pandemic—more than ever, the world has become increasingly aware of the importance of social interactions in everyday life.”

Melissa studies what happens in the brain during cooperation, one of two basic modes of social cognition. In any interaction, an individual must cooperate with others as they seek positive outcomes for all parties. To achieve this, the individual must perceive and integrate socially relevant information to respond appropriately.

“The motivation and capacity to be social is a key component of human behavior,” she says. “Unfortunately, neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, which affects almost six million people in the United States, can impair social communication and behavior.”

In Melissa’s experiments, subjects must work together to obtain a desired outcome. Using a system she developed to track eye movements and brain activity, she discovered subjects use visual clues from each other, which affect neural responses and the decision to cooperate.

According to Melissa, examining the correlation of observations and brain activity during cooperation will provide a better understanding of how we process, store, and apply information about other individuals and social situations. In turn, these results may lead to targeted therapeutic interventions, such as medications or neural implants and stimulation.

Melissa’s work is also personal. “I have a brother with autism, so I understand how social dysfunction can impact individuals and their families,” she explains. “I hope to find ways to help people like my brother be more comfortable and effective in social interactions.”

Organizers of the 2019 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, highlighted Melissa’s preclinical research, a recognition they give to only about 100 of more than 14,000 projects. The annual meeting attracts more than 30,000 attendees from 80 countries.

Melissa is pursuing her doctorate in neuroscience under the mentorship of Valentin Dragoi, PhD, who is pioneering research on the complex functions of the brain.

“Melissa is among the next generation of UTHealth researchers uncovering the mysteries of the brain,” he says. “She combines technical sophistication and computational analyses to improve the quality of life for individuals and their families around the world.”

Wearing a virtual reality headset, patients enter a computer-generated party full of people, lights, and sounds. Patients engage with this virtual world easily, interacting with partygoers as if they were at a real social event. While it sounds like the latest video game, this module is part of a new treatment to help people with autism who struggle with social anxiety.

Difficulty processing social information, a central feature of autism spectrum disorder, can make social interactions challenging.

“People on the spectrum learn from an early age to feel like they are a square peg in a round hole,” says Katherine A. Loveland, PhD. “Growing up, they realize that they don’t know how to navigate the social world very well, and as a result, they often develop social anxiety.”

With the help of virtual reality and the longstanding generosity of Landmark Charities, Loveland and her team are working to treat social anxiety in people with autism. In the virtual party, patients navigate the scenario with help from trained therapists. Loveland’s team has also developed several virtual people who patients can interact with individually.

While there are some similarities with video games, these virtual environments are more robust with limitless speech options. Experts control and adapt the social interactions to help patients build conversational skills. Loveland hopes that exposing people with autism to realistic social scenarios in a safe environment will help reduce their social anxiety.

Loveland’s team has developed these extensive virtual reality environments and is now in the process of enrolling adults on the spectrum into a 12-week program to determine if it works to treat social anxiety.

“I am hopeful these virtual reality scenarios will become a new, effective method to help people with autism navigate and thrive in the world around them,” Loveland says. She also hopes these tools will help people combating other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma, and auditory hallucinations.

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