Newswise — Brain research by a student in a laboratory at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) was singled out for special attention at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting in Chicago Oct. 19-23.

A lay summary of Melissa Franch’s preclinical research into how the brain manages social interactions was sent to the nearly 300 journalists covering the meeting. Only about 100 of the more than 14,000 abstracts submitted to the meeting are awarded this recognition.

SfN’s annual meeting regularly attracts more than 30,000 attendees, representing 80 countries, and 536 exhibiting companies.

“Unfortunately, the ability to socially connect with others is impaired in many mental health disorders such as autism, depression, and schizophrenia,” Franch said.

“My research seeks to improve our understanding of the neural computations of social behavior, which will lead to better therapies and quality of life for affected individuals,” she said. “Very little is known about how different areas of the brain process social interactions.”

She is conducting the research for her dissertation in the laboratory of Valentin Dragoi, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy and holder of the Rochelle and Max Levit Distinguished Professorship in the Neurosciences at McGovern Medical School.

“Melissa is a diligent student who combines technical sophistication and computational analyses to meet her research goals,” Dragoi said.

Franch became interested in studying how the brain works at a young age. “I have a brother with autism, so I am very familiar with the disorder and I have seen its effects firsthand,” she said.

It is Franch’s hope that her research may one day help people with autism and other social skill issues.

Franch is earning a doctorate in neuroscience at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.