Autism and the Brain

In a study published in the journal Nature and subsequently reported by Robert Langreth of Bloomberg News, Stanford University researchers found that stimulating brain cells with light in mice caused autism-like symptoms.

Scientists implanted light-sensitive proteins into parts of the brain linked with social behavior, then activated them with blue lasers that were routed using fiber-optic cables. The mice subsequently didn’t socialize with other animals. When using a laser to activate cells inhibiting brain activity, the social behavior was partly restored.

The findings provide evidence to the theory that autism and other brain disorders may be caused by brain circuits oversensitive to stimulation, as the balance between neurons that spur signaling when excited and calming down activity when excited may be disrupted. The vice president of translational research at Autism Speaks predicted the laser method in this study could be revolutionary in detecting brain disorders on a molecular basis, but possible therapies based on lasers are far off for now.

Langreth’s word choice could spark an uproar among the autism community, as he refers to autism as a disease in the opening paragraph. Many involved in the autism community can be testy when others equate autism to a disease, a mindset that forms the foundation of criticism for groups like Autism Speaks (and subsequently explain the optimism expressed by the Autism Speaks member quoted in the story). The reason for such animosity is the belief that linking autism as a disease suggests the condition can and should be cured, when several on the spectrum have no qualms sharing their quirk.  For the rest of the story, Langreth uses the word disorders to term autism and other mental conditions believed to be associated with the brain. That doesn’t mean he instantly recognized how word selection could generate controversy, but he believed the two were synonymous for the story. Reporters will often employ synonyms when their articles primarily emphasize one subject, as too much repetition can lose the attention of readers or suggest that a journalist’s vocabulary isn’t strong.

The study itself provides another avenue of exploration to find the cause of autism, with researchers suggesting the findings could lead to development of drugs or devices that calm or shield parts of the brain. Despite the similarities of brain configuration in animals, humans do have larger, more complex brains than mice do, and testing the study on humans is no less than necessary to validate the findings discovered by testing mice. While no repercussions were listed, the potential for side effects exists as the study explored the impact of altering brain activity. Don’t worry, this isn’t a secret plot to control life forms for world domination, but it’s more reasonable to believe this study is only a start far from its endpoint.

Because more work is needed to examine this theory, there were few sources quoted for the article, as Langreth interviewed a senior author by telephone and the Autism Speaks representative. Most stories on studies will either conduct an interview or transplant a press release by a head researcher, as other participants would likely give similar responses, creating redundancy in the story. Although no outcry exists over the study or word choice in the story, journalists may need to exercise caution with approaching autism, or even give a story on concerns over imagery associated with autism. The population is a fraction of the United States total, but the community is certainly keeping watch.

 

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Mike Peden
Mike Peden brings a rarely discussed perspective on autism news: he was diagnosed with the disability in 1991. His explorations on autism led to an Alliance for Community Media Hometown Video Award in 2008 in the Documentary - Public Awareness category, and he currently deciphers evolving trends in autism coverage.
Mike Peden

Mike Peden

Mike Peden brings a rarely discussed perspective on autism news: he was diagnosed with the disability in 1991. His explorations on autism led to an Alliance for Community Media Hometown Video Award in 2008 in the Documentary - Public Awareness category, and he currently deciphers evolving trends in autism coverage.

0 thoughts on “Autism and the Brain

  • September 4, 2011 at 11:36 pm
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    All parents have unique stresses as the result of raising children, but what is being done to help parents cope?

    My name is Crystal Lee, and I am a doctorate student in clinical psychology at Baylor University. For my dissertation I am studying stress and ways of coping with stress in parents. My hope is to use the data from my dissertation to create an effective way to help parents cope with stress.

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    If you do not meet the above criteria, please consider forwarding the survey to any parents you know that fit the above criteria.

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    If you have any questions regarding the study, you may contact me at Crystal_Lee1@Baylor.edu

    Thank you for your time and help,

    Crystal Lee, M.S.
    Doctoral Student
    Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
    Baylor University

    Reply
  • August 8, 2011 at 3:18 am
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    Hi, I’m new to xanga and Autisable and ran across your post. I remember reading this research article a week or so ago. Interesting stuff but unfortunately a long way off before it will turn into something more clinically useful.

    Reply
  • August 7, 2011 at 10:50 pm
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    Great information. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.  I think that the autism community wouldn’t be so offended by the verbiage, but the neurodiversity community may have an issue with it.  

    Reply
  • August 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm
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    This is really fascinating!  Boy wouldn’t this be a boon to people suffering autism and perhaps other conditions!  I find this all SO interesting!  Thank you for posting this!

    Reply

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