Autism: Sensory overload?

Henry Markram, savant of the Blue Brain, has a child who is Aspergerian. This has caused him to do research and reflect on what may be causing the syndrome:

Kai also loved to hug people, even strangers, which is one reason it took years to get a diagnosis. That warmth made many experts rule out autism. Only after multiple evaluations was Kai finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a type of autism that includes social difficulties and repetitive behaviors, but not lack of speech or profound intellectual disability…

After years of research, the couple came up with their label for the theory during a visit to the remote area where Henry Markram was born, in the South African part of the Kalahari desert. He says “intense world” was Kamila’s phrase; she says she can’t recall who hit upon it. But he remembers sitting in the rust-colored dunes, watching the unusual swaying yellow grasses while contemplating what it must be like to be inescapably flooded by sensation and emotion.

That, he thought, is what Kai experiences. The more he investigated the idea of autism not as a deficit of memory, emotion and sensation, but an excess, the more he realized how much he himself had in common with his seemingly alien son.

Reading in between the lines of the article not everyone is totally on board with this idea:

Simon Baron-Cohen, who directs the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, told me, “I am open to the idea that the social deficits in autism—like problems with the cognitive aspects of empathy, which is also known as ‘theory of mind’—may be upstream from a more basic sensory abnormality.” In other words, the Markrams’ physiological model could be the cause, and the social deficits he studies, the effect. He adds that the VPA rat is an “interesting” model. However, he also notes that most autism is not caused by VPA and that it’s possible that sensory and social defects co-occur, rather than one causing the other.

I certainly do not know enough to comment on the merits of the theory.

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One thought on “Autism: Sensory overload?

  1. Granted, I’m going to take some liberties with what it means to have a sensory ‘overload’ in this context, but it is interesting to bring up some of the other work being done by UCSD on this. In particular, Alysson Muotri took EFP recordings from differentiated neurons derived from hiPSCs with a Rett Syndrome genotype – Rett’s being one of the most severe manifestations of spectrum disorders.

    Aside from the findings regarding morphological differences betwee RTT and WT neurons, Muotri’s lab found that RTT cultures observed almost no synchronicity in neural firing, whereas the WT cultures had plenty. When I asked, he said the overall number of spikes weren’t significantly different. This might be consistent with Markram’s musings if we take ‘overload’ to mean ‘badly timed.’

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