Insights into Autism: A Brain Imager’s Perspective
Autism, a neural development disorder, is commonly characterised by those showing behavioural and cognitive impairment. Neuroscience research has struggled to pin down the nature of the underlying neural deficit. However, new techniques in brain imaging are now indicating that the problem is not within specific areas of the brain, but in how these areas are interconnected. Prof Rippon’s inaugural lecture aimed to describe some of the neuroimaging techniques being employed to explore brain connectivity and how they are used in autism research.
Brain imager’s perspective
Following an introduction from the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Rippon began by introducing us to what exactly is a brain imager’s perspective and its relation to autism. Talking about EEG’s, fMRI’s and MEG’s, she referred to what was thought to be the brain imager’s ‘holy grail’ – finding the relation between time, frequency and space. Using an image of meatballs and spaghetti as an interesting analogy, Rippon explained to the audience that the key to brain imagery was discovering how they are interconnected.
Triad of impairments
To those unfamiliar with what Autism entails, we were familiarised with the ‘triad of impairments’ referring to the three most common characteristics associated with Autistic people: Impairment of socialisation, impairments in communication and restricted/focused repertoire of interests and activities. Prof Rippon identified those 10% that show extraordinary savant skills and explained how it tends to be this characteristic which most people most associate with Autism, following popular films such as Rain Man. From the ability to recite pi to 22,514 decimal places to having a calendar memory, savant skills are fascinating to witness. Showing the audience a variety of optical illusions designed to test the brain, she explored ‘neoconstructivist theories’ of autism which identify autistic brains as being specifically ‘disconnected, overgrown and noisy’.
Six steps to Kevin Bacon
This trivial game was used as an analogy for the small world theory suggesting that human society is a small world network, linked to the common ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ concept. In terms of Autism, Prof Rippon used this to liken the brain to a network where everything is interconnected. Discovering more about this interconnection would allow for a greater understanding of the neural disorder.
The future of Autism
As the lecture came to a close, Prof Rippon explored the future of Autism and what can be done to discover more about the disorder. With the Aston Brain Centre due to be up and running in 2010, this will provide greater opportunities to look at the brain in terms of biomarkers and genotyping, both of which can help with early identification and remediation of Autism.
The audience were given the opportunity to ask questions and the lecture was left on an intriguing note as the question was asked ‘should Autism be seen as a disorder?’.
Words by Munira Jasat