In everyday social interactions, movement and facial expressions combine to communicate emotions. Indiana University researchers at the IUPUC Social Neuroscience Lab are working to better understand how humans use movement to convey emotion, and how neurodiverse people are perceived because they may have difficulty making controlled movements. Mark Jaime, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator at the lab, says much of the lab’s research is focused on children with autism. People expect certain movements to provide certain social and emotional cues, but children with autism may not be able to express themselves through those movements because they may be unable to make them. These communication barriers often make it harder for children with autism to assimilate with their peers, making them prone to being teased or bullied in school. To assess people’s reactions to movement separately from facial expressions, researchers used point-light displays—videos that feature moving dots on a black background—where information about facial features and other details of the expresser's identity are not available. Participants then completed behavioral studies rating point-light movements on the emotional properties they conveyed, including pleasantness, intensity and the level of activity. The researchers found that participants can use emotional properties gleaned from movement alone to discriminate between emotion categories, and that intensity and speed are important cues for the perception of fearful movements. The researchers hope their research can lead to treatments and therapies for autistic children, such as helping their school peers understand the differences between neurotypical and neurodiverse children. Jaime and his colleagues are currently developing a study to examine neural activity while people view emotional movements. Their long-term goal is to understand individual differences in movement perception in typically developing populations, as well as in populations with clinical disorders like autism. By knowing more about these disorders, society may become more tolerant and accepting, Jaime says.
In other news, post-traumatic epilepsy is one of the most devastating consequences of a traumatic brain injury. Depending on the severity of the injury, anywhere from five to 53 percent of people with traumatic brain injury may develop post-traumatic epilepsy, and it’s often resistant to antiseizure medications. There is often a span of time between the injury and the onset of epilepsy, known as the “latent period,” during which treatments could be initiated to either reduce the chance of or completely prevent post-traumatic epilepsy. One potential cause of the condition is inflammation in the brain. In hopes of preventing it or decreasing the probability of it developing, Xiaoming Jin and his colleagues at the Stark Neurosciences Institute of the IU School of Medicine are working to understand the role of inflammation in the brain. The inflammatory process is regulated by “parent” proteins that, when activated, bind to target receptors to activate downstream signaling pathways. Jin and his team were able to determine that these proteins also play a role in post-traumatic epilepsy and that inhibiting these pathways soon after injury decreased seizure susceptibility and frequency. It also improved neuron survival and reduced brain tissue scarring. Research to assess what happens in the brain after traumatic brain injury is crucial to discovering possible therapeutic options to prevent epilepsy from developing, Jin says. Data from this study further validate the roles of parent proteins and their downstream inflammatory pathways in the post-traumatic epilepsy process itself, he says, including cellular level changes, and how blocking either of these pathways may one day prevent post-traumatic epilepsy.