Leehe Peled-Avron is interested both in basic neuroscience and human social behavior. For her PhD in Neuropsychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa, she examined how people react to observed—or vicarious—social touching. She found that it provoked positive emotions in highly empathic people and caused avoidance and hypervigilance in people with high autistic traits. But when the brain region linked to emotional empathy was stimulated, less empathic people rated vicarious social touch as more positive. They reacted similarly when given oxytocin, a prosocial neuropeptide. Dr. Peled-Avron’s findings could form a possible therapeutic intervention for autism spectrum disorders.
Supported by an extremely generous Israel Science Foundation grant, Dr. Peled-Avron then did postdoctoral research, also at the University of Haifa. For her current postdoc she is again investigating the underlying neural mechanisms of oxytocin’s effects in various psychiatric and psychological disorders. In connection with the University of California, San-Francisco, she is at the Laboratory of Bonding and Attunement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders (BAND) at the San Francisco Veterans Affair Medical Center. She hopes to use oxytocin to reinstate neural responses to vicarious social touch in patients with schizophrenia, in an effort to improve self-other differentiation and alleviate patients’ difficulties with social interactions. These social deficits are resistant to currently available pharmacotherapies.