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BBS Researchers to Explore Social Cognition in Two Disorders

Dr. Noah Sasson

Dr. Noah Sasson

UT Dallas researchers will receive more than $400,000 from the National Institutes of Health to research differences in social cognition between people living with schizophrenia and those with autism spectrum disorder.

Social cognition refers to the mental skills a person uses to interpret social cues in the real world, such as recognizing that someone who keeps checking their watch likely doesn’t have time to chat. 

“You’ll see a lot of superficial similarities between autism and schizophrenia in their social impairments — they both have problems with social interactions, they both have difficulties understanding social norms or navigating social challenges,” said Dr. Noah Sasson, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and lead investigator on the grant. “But really we’re trying to hone in on what’s at the root of these impairments for the two groups, and we have good reason to believe that’s very different.”

The difficulty is that the differences between the two are not well enough defined to know how to best treat each disorder, Sasson said.

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that can affect the way a person thinks, perceives reality or experiences emotions. Symptoms can range from hallucinations and delusions to feeling a lack of emotions and missing pleasure in their lives.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability characterized by a range of social challenges, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors. Both autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia are complicated disorders that can appear with varying degrees of severity and symptoms.

Dr. Amy Pinkham

Dr. Amy Pinkham

Sasson and Dr. Amy Pinkham, co-investigator and new BBS faculty member, are well-suited to work on this problem together. They met in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while Sasson was studying autism and Pinkham was studying schizophrenia.

“We hung out socially at first and then realized that we were studying almost the exact same things in totally different populations,” Pinkham said. “The more we talked, the more overlap we found, and we were both intrigued by how two totally different disorders could look so similar in this domain. We thought that there had to be more to it.”

Eventually, their talking led to a research collaboration and marriage.

“People work in the autism world or they work in the schizophrenia world; they don’t really coexist very often,” Sasson said. “I just happen to live with someone who studies schizophrenia and I can leverage her resources and she can leverage mine, so we have this unique ability to do this kind of study.”

Sasson and Pinkham are applying methods traditionally used in schizophrenia research to study people with autism. As a field, autism research has focused strongly on children.

“There is an increasing recognition that children with autism grow up and when they grow up they have unique challenges, especially for those individuals who have the potential for independent living and a high quality of life,” Sasson said. “They have a lot of strengths to offer and are intellectually gifted, yet the social impairments are holding them back.”

Most studies of social impairment in adults with autism use a mixture of self-reporting and informant reporting — when people in an individual’s life fill out surveys about their social skills. According to Sasson, the problem with these reports is they often do not present a clear or representative picture of the reality of an adult with autism’s actual social abilities. The new study will employ observational and functional tests that are utilized in schizophrenia research. These methods include observing a person in real social situations or asking an individual to complete a task such as negotiating with a landlord to get a leaky pipe fixed.

BBS professor Dr. Hervé Abdi will perform statistical analysis of the research data. Abdi is a statistical expert in factor analytic approaches, which look for individual differences in patterns of large data.

“We hope that this will help us identify those areas of social cognition that are most impaired in folks with schizophrenia and ASD so that we’ll know what to best target in treatment,” Pinkham said. “We also hope to learn which aspects of social cognition have the largest impact on outcome. Those are the areas where our treatments are most likely to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

Tagged: BBS research