Today I went in for a research study on eye tracking in the Cal Tech emotions lab. They are doing research in high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome. This involved looking at some faces and being asked to push a key depending on the gender of the face under various circumstances. I did this while wearing an eye tracking device on my head. It was rather cumbersome and uncomfortable for the duration of the experiment but I managed it. Dr. Dan Kennedy, a protege of Eric Courchesne in whose research group I have participated in, in the past is the investigator in the study. I have also written about my experiences with the Courchesne lab elsewhere Now that he has finished his doctoral work under Courchesne at UCSD, he is now a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Ralph Adolphs, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CIT.
It started out last month at an autism conference in Long Beach that I went to. Normally the fare at autism conferences is bland if not drab, mostly behaviorists, special educators or people pushing whatever flavor-of-the-month treatment is extant. Not to mention the Jeff Bradstreets and others who push the very questionable mercury-causes-autism hypothesis. However, this conference was somewhat a metaphorical diamond in the rough. They had Manuel Casanova, who has done autopsies of autistic brains and has demonstrated abnormal minicolumns as a possible etiology of autism. Also among the impressive lineup was a somewhat pregnant Lindsay Oberman who gave her take on mirror neurons and mu wave suppressions. It included Mirella Depratto, wife of mirror neuron maestro Marco Iacabonni,-talking about some of her work. Interesting sidenote, but least relevant to this post Donna Williams was also a scheduled speaker, but she got sick and was not able to show up in person. However, she gave a videotape of her presentation and later there was a question and answer session with her using skype, which I did not attend, leaving the conference before this.
Last but not least was a new kid on the block (at least to me) a young and up and coming brain researcher whom I had never heard of named Dan Kennedy. I had not been keeping up with a lot of the literature as of late so I missed out on reading the intriguing study about the default network that he did with Eric Courchesne. here is the study for your reading pleasure. To summarize there are a variety of areas at the brain that have a high activity at rest, i.e. when a person is not engaging in any task such as solving a mathematical problem or reading something. These areas consist of areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate, posterior cingulate, and precuneus. These are interconnected to each either via axons and are collectively known as the resting network or default network. Though the study is rather technical for me and I did not understand all of it, the gist of it was that an experiment was done with autistics versus normal controls in which they engaged in a task called the stroop test in which a research subject is asked to read words that describe colors but printed in a different color for example green written in blue ink. The subject is asked to name the color the word is written in rather than the word itself, in this case saying blue instead of saying green. It has been shown that the natural tendency is to say the word rather than the color of the word, so this is a more challenging test than it might appear to be superficially. When the nonautistic controls did this, their default networks shut down, that is they showed a low metabolic rate as measured in a fMRI scan showing that blood oxygen no longer went to these areas during somewhat challenging mental activity. In the autistic subjects, the default network still remained active. It was speculated that abnormalities in these processes might be part of the etiology of autism.
This is intriguing to me, because I have to wonder if this is why I have had intrusive thoughts and an inability to concentrate on my former medical transcription jobs making abnormal amounts of mistakes. Could it also have something to do with my twiddling (self-stimulatory behavior)? Perhaps in non-autistic people these areas shut down when they are not engaged in a task, and if mine won't turn off, maybe that is why I have difficult doing things and concentrating.
Dr. Kennedy also speculated that because of the high metabolic rates of certain brain areas such as the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex they might be more susceptible to damage due to genetic factors, infectious factors or possibly an environmental factor. It seemed to me the way Dr. Kennedy worded this in the study that he was implying that there were known factors in the environment that could cause autism. I certainly questioned this and called him on it. He stated that he meant that for example lead poisoning and mercury poisoning could cause some autistic like behaviors in children brain damaged from these things even if the children were not autistic themselves. I questioned this, because as regular readers of gadfly know, I don't really believe that heavy metal poisoning causes autism. Of course it is speculation and Dr. Kennedy conceded this. He also conceded he did not mean to say that these environmental factors could cause autism itself, just some behaviors that resembled autism such as in lead poisoned or mercury poisoned children.
Before I did the eyetracking study, I was introduced to the group's director, Dr. Ralph Adolphs. I was intrigued because Dr. Adolphs had studied under Antonio Demasio, a very well known eminent neuroscientist formerly at the University of Iowa and now at the University of Southern California. Many years ago I read a journal article that was published in the late 1970's by Dr. Demasio and his colleague, Ralph Maurer which dealt with comparisons of adult syndromes of the frontal lobes and basal ganglia and parallels and similarities to autism. The frontal lobes deal with organization and executive functioning which are often the bane of autistic people. The basal ganglia deals with motor behaviors, though I don't think it is responsible for my twiddling (self-stimulatory behavior) or fine motor coordination problems. Though it was interesting one problem is that adult lesions are probably different from developmental lesions so not sure how apt the comparisons are.
I was then interviewed by Dr. Lynn Paul, a clinical psychologist who works with the group. We took a break for lunch after that during which time Dr. Kennedy and I reminisced over mutual acquaintences of ours who worked in the Courchesne lab such as Matthew Belmonte and Greg Allen.
They wanted me to do some more stuff for them, but it was getting late and I was concerned about driving back in heavy traffic, so I guess this is a saga to be continued. It is also possible that I will have a functional MRI scan done by them at some point but still not sure, and I made a little money which is nice considering my financial situation of late has not been the best. Though I have had two structural MRI scans I have not yet had a functional one, where you do a certain type of task while undergoing a scan. Before I stopped going to the Courchesne group in 1998, Greg Allen attempted one on me, but my head was too big to fit in the apparatus along with all of the computer equipment that was in place in the scanner.
Well this is the beginning of what may be an interesting story and a new chapter in the saga of my life with autism so far. I may or may not write more about my experiences with the cal tech emotions lab stay tuned.
Addendum: The group is looking for research subjects with high functioning autism or asperger's syndrome. They pay $20/hour for the type of study I was involved in and I think $50/hour if you undergo an fMRI scan. They gave me some pamphlets and told them if I knew anyone to let them know they are looking for subjects. I think it is possible they pay out of state travel expenses to people who are not local to southern california but i am not sure, you can contact them at (626) 395-4486 or send the director, Ralph Adolphs email at firstname.lastname@example.org