A new genetic disorder has been identified and added to the DSM. On the surface, it sounds pretty nice.
It’s called Williams Syndrome and mimics the side-effects of ecstasy or MDMA.
Those with Williams Syndrome have no problem opening up – to the point of making strangers feel awkward and often putting themselves in precarious situations. The disorder affects one in 10,000 people. It evokes feelings of kinship and bonding with virtually everyone they encounter, making them appear like your friend’s sloshed wife at the Christmas party. A sufferer might hug strangers walking down the street or invite the gas station attendant over for dinner.
“What’s wrong with that?” You may be thinking. “We need more love and openness in the world.”
And you aren’t wrong until you consider what kind of circumstances such behavior could potentially put you in.
Parents who have children that suffer from this disorder fear that this seemingly innocent behavior could actually make their kids vulnerable to exploitation, being made fun of, or worse, sexually assaulted.
When asked to describe what living with such constant feelings of euphoria is like, one young man with Williams explained: “It’s like a party!”
Which is a fairly accurate description, even lending the condition to be nicknamed “the cocktail party syndrome” because of its tendency to make people extremely outgoing and friendly.
This disorder was identified first in the 1950’s, when scientists identified 26 missing genes that were responsible for causing Williams disorder. Some researchers hoped it would lead to a better understanding of the genetic roots of human behavior, particularly our biological need to physically and emotionally bond with others. While no conclusive data or parallel correlations were established, the condition continued to be observed and studied.
In 2009, a team of researchers discovered that one gene, in particular, might explain why people with Williams formed unsubstantiated bonds and interest with everyone around them.
The gene, called GTF2I, plays an integral part in regulating the brain’s production of oxytocin – a hormone most commonly associated with mother-infant bonding and partner-bonding – post-coital. In layman’s terms, It’s referred to as the “love hormone” and the “trust hormone.”
One of its functions is to relax the amygdala, the place in the brain where fight or flight is processed. Essentially, oxytocin allows the amygdala to “let its guard down” which creates feelings of inhibition. Ordinarily, oxytocin released by the pituitary gland in controlled and strategically-timed. However, for people missing a copy of the GTF2I gene, the trickle becomes more like a broken dam and the floodgates are open all the time.
As it turns out, there’s another way to open the oxytocin floodgates, short of removing the GTF2I gene: taking MDMA (or ecstasy). It has a similar effect on the brain. Taking the drug fosters feelings of connection and intimacy, and was originally used as a popular tool in the 70’s to facilitate couples therapy and to help patients cope with severe trauma or PTSD.
Aside from mimicking oxytocin, MDMA also increases production of serotonin, which helps explain the drug’s mood-boosting effects and its ability to heighten feelings of awareness and alertness.
Evidence in favor of oxytocin’s role in the overall effects of MDMA explains why Williams disease and the popular party drug emulate one another – a theory tested and confirmed in lab rats.
Researchers removed the rat equivalent of the GTF2I gene in mice and found it resulted in similarly cuddly and social inhibitions. Instead of scurrying into corners to avoid detection by predators, (as rodents usually do) these rats sauntered out into the open as if looking for a party.
When a new mouse was introduced to the group, the altered rats were quick to bond, showing no protective or cautious behavior.
While having Williams may seem like a wonderful way to live your life, the problem occurs when a lack of ability to perceive threats of danger doesn’t prevent that person from interacting with those he or she probably shouldn’t. With a repressed sense of fear or alertness, those with Williams disorder can find themselves in scary situations. They also struggle with the concept that different types of relationships entail different levels of intimacy. In their world, everyone is treated as a close friend which can be off-putting/borderline scary for unknowing recipients.
Perhaps, one day, geneticists will find a way to mimic the DNA or develop a hormone that allows those suffering from Williams disorder to live normal lives.
That is, if they want to.