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U of U Study: Musical Connections Tuned to Genetics

PHOTO: Child playing a piano. Photo credit: Deborah Smith
PHOTO: Child playing a piano. Photo credit: Deborah Smith
July 9, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Elvis isn't just part of history; his music is now part of scientific history - published in a new study by University of Utah researchers that looks at genetic connections to the body's regulation of emotional hormones. Music by Elvis Presley and others was played to gauge emotional hormone levels in people with Williams syndrome, a well-documented genetic disorder, and those without it.

U of U professor Dr. Julie Korenberg led the study, which is the first to reveal new genes that control emotional response. She is hopeful the breakthrough will lead to better treatments for a wide spectrum of disorders.

"Social issues and behavior anxiety, autism, depression - these are among the most important things that we as a society need to understand and help."

Specifically, oxytocin and vasopressin blood levels were measured - two hormones released in the brain.

Oxytocin is often described as the "love hormone," but Dr. Korenberg says there is more to it - and, by the way, more is not necessarily better.

"These higher oxytocin values are not just positive; they are also negative. The higher oxytocin you have, the more you tend to approach people, but the higher oxytocin you have, also, the less adaptive behavior you have socially."

Dr. Korenberg points to the study as a turning point in understanding human emotional and behavioral systems. Yet the brain can be affected by more than genetics or even head injuries, she adds.

"It could be that if you are treated nicely as a child, or if you're treated poorly as a child, it also changes the responses of this same system. Our work doesn't mean it's only genetic, but it says, wow, this IS the system."

Related studies are being completed and are expected to be published soon. Korenberg's study is published in PLoS ONE, an open access, peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The full study report is available at www.plosone.org.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - UT