Overhaul of our understanding of why autism potentially occurs

Posted on August 18, 2014

Photo: flickr

An analysis of autism research covering genetics, brain imaging, and cognition led by Laurent Mottron of the University of Montreal has overhauled our understanding of why autism potentially occurs, develops and results in a diversity of symptoms. The team of senior academics involved in the project calls it the "Trigger-Threshold-Target'' model. Brain plasticity refers to the brain's ability to respond and remodel itself, and this model is based on the idea that autism is a genetically induced plastic reaction. The trigger is multiple brain plasticity-enhancing genetic mutations that may or may not combine with a lowered genetic threshold for brain plasticity to produce either intellectual disability alone, autism, or autism without intellectual disability. The model confirms that the autistic brain develops with enhanced processing of certain types of information, which results in the brain searching for materials that possess the qualities it prefers and neglecting materials that don't. "One of the consequences of our new model will be to focus early childhood intervention on developing the particular strengths of the child's brain, rather than exclusively trying to correct missing behaviors, a practice that may be a waste of a once in a lifetime opportunity," Mottron said.

Mottron and his colleagues developed the model by examining the effect of mutations involved in autism together with the brain activity of autistic people as they undertake perceptual tasks. "Geneticists, using animals implanted with the mutations involved in autism, have found that most of them enhance synaptic plasticity – the capacity of brain cells to create connections when new information is encountered. In parallel, our group and others have established that autism represents an altered balance between the processing of social and non-social information, i.e. the interest, performance and brain activity, in favor of non-social information," Mottron explained. "The Trigger-Threshold-Target model builds a bridge between these two series of facts, using the neuro cognitive effects of sensory deprivation to resolve the missing link between them."

The various superiorities that subgroups of autistic people present in perception or in language indicates that an autistic infant's brain adapts to the information it is given in a strikingly similar way to sensory-deprived people. A blind infant's brain compensate the lack of visual input by developing enhanced auditory processing abilities for example, and a deaf infant readapts to process visual inputs in a more refined fashion. Similarly, cognitive and brain imaging studies of autistic people work reveal enhanced activity, connectivity and structural modifications in the perceptive areas of the brain. Differences in the domain of information "targeted'' by these plastic processes are associated with the particular pattern of strengths and weaknesses of each autistic individual. "Speech and social impairment in some autistic toddlers may not be the result of a primary brain dysfunction of the mechanisms related to these abilities, but the result of their early neglect," Mottron said. "Our model suggests that the autistic superior perceptual processing compete with speech learning because neural resources are oriented towards the perceptual dimensions of language, neglecting its linguistic dimensions. Alternatively, for other subgroups of autistic people, known as Asperger, it's speech that's overdeveloped. In both cases, the overdeveloped function outcompetes social cognition for brain resources, resulting in a late development of social skills."

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Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from University of Montreal


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