Have you ever wondered exactly how our brains work? Recently I was asked to review a new study that was being published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (add link to study) and answer a few questions. The study was fascinating to me because it was using state-of-the-art technology to peer inside the brain, in order to help us answer some questions about one of the most perplexing and rapidly increasing developmental disabilities – autism.
The researchers used sophisticated instruments to actually count the number of brain cells in a particular portion of the brain – the frontal lobe. We have long known that the brains of children with autism are larger than those of their “neurotypical” peers. It was thought that the frontal lobes might play an important role in the “overgrowth” of neurons in the brains of kids with autism. This study was the first to be able to look this closely at specific areas and find out if this is actually the case. The researchers found that indeed the brains of the children with autism had more cells in particular areas of the frontal lobes.
I was asked what this type of information added to our understanding of autism as a whole, given that here at Beaumont’s HOPE Center we work intensively to treat autism. I think the most exciting part of the study is that we are now learning how to see inside the brain, to find out exactly what areas are affected differently, which can help us (1) understand the cause(s) of autism more clearly and/or (2) inform our treatment efforts.
At the HOPE Center, we are behavioral psychologists. We don’t use medications – we focus on changing the environment to change behavior. We arrange learning opportunities throughout the therapy sessions to teach new skills and minimize problematic behaviors that get in the way of learning. When we change what we are doing, we are actually changing the brain as well! When we learn a new skill, create a new habit, get rid of an old habit, etc., we are actually changing the way the parts of our brains communicate with one another and how the brain works as a whole. In autism, researchers know that many areas are affected, and many systems don’t function the way they do in typical children. But teasing out the exact ways in which this happens is important, so we can fine-tune our interventions and maybe even learn how to prevent autism from developing.
This study was very small and has some limitations. I’ll be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about the type of technology they used. However, this type of research offers a thrilling glimpse inside the mind. It probably won’t be long before we will be able to more accurately “see” inside the brain to find out what the effects of our therapies are in real time.
—Lori J. Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s Hospital