Today I attended a rather interesting lecture by autism researcher Nancy Minshew. Dr. Minshew is a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and is one of the people currently doing research into the neurophysiology of autism. She talked about autism being "synapseopathy". I guess that might mean lack of connections between synapses. Also she talked about autism being a disconnection syndrome, various areas of the brain being disconnected from each other. What, of course, was most interesting about this idea was that she stated that it had implications for someday making good interventions a reality for autistic people. She stated that one of the most interesting questions to her about autism was the heterogeneity between autistic persons. She used the book about social skills co-written by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron as an example of this phenomena. She read the blurbs on the flap of the book, one from Grandin and one from Barron. She contrasted the differences between these two persons with autism. Temple had no emotion in her blurb, just approached social situations logically, whereas Sean was the opposite.
She discussed the fact since autism seemed to result in a problem of migration of neurons to various places during fetal development that this suggested that the mercury/vaccines causes autism people were mistaken. She quoted a toxicologist who worked at the CDC who had an autistic son stating that he had studied this and the evidence of toxicological factors and this showed that autism was not caused by anything toxicological. She then gave Paul Offit's book a plug. She also plugged a book that has just come out by someone named Andrew Zimmerman, though I don't remember the name of the book or she never gave it.
One interesting anecdote that she discussed was how rules could override concepts in autistic individuals. She talked of a story about an autistic boy who was an eagle scout trained in first aide who liked to ice skate. One day he went ice skating with his mother and then skated a bit too fast and knocked his mother over who became unconscious. Though the boy was trained in first aide, someone else ended up administering it to her and not her son. After she was administered the first aide and taken to the hospital the boy's mother inquired as to why he had not given her first aide since he was an Eagle scout and had been trained and given a first aide badge. His reply was, "my first aide badge expired".
She talked about some studies of amygdala-cortical interactions.
One interesting thing that she talked about was functioning in Broca's and Wernicke's areas in autistics versus normal controls. Broca's area is the part of the brain in the frontal lobe that is involved in expressive speech. Persons who have lesions in this area as adults become aphasic and are not able to speak. Wernicke's area is in the temporal lobe of the brain and it involves receptive language or the ability to understand language and adults with lesions in this area have trouble understanding language. Minshew talked about a study in which the autistic group had less activation in Broca's than the normal control group whereas they had more activation in Wernicke's area. These results are consistent with poorer comprehension of complex sentences yet good reading and spelling ability among autistics. What I found most interesting about this study is perhaps this could be the reason that autistics do not always develop expressive speech. Perhaps there is some dysfunction in Broca's area that is analogous to adult aphasics. This would contradict what Eric Courchesne told me years ago when I was his research subject in some MRI scans and event related potential studies. He claimed that studying Broca's area would probably not be fruitful in autistics as developmental lesions were different than adult lesions. When I first asked him about why if autistics have damaged cerebellums they have no obvious motor impairments this was along the lines of his explanation that because the damage to the cerebellum was early enough there were not the same types of motor impairments that took place when an adult had damage to the cerebellum.
I don't remember much more about the lecture but overall a very interesting lecture.