Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What It’s Like to ‘Wake Up’ From Autism After Magnetic Stimulation

Interesting story I ran across.   We actually tried this with my son and we had marginal success.  This article explains some things that maybe I didn't realize...

For a long time, it was thought that people with autism spectrum disorder lacked emotion, that even the higher-functioning among them navigated the world like logical robots oblivious to “real” feelings. More recently, research has shown their social issues are more likely to stem from difficulty expressing emotion or reading the emotions of others.

Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 40, John Elder Robison felt isolated and disconnected throughout his entire youth and early adulthood. But in 2008, at 50, he took part in what became a three-year research project looking at brain function in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and exploring the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to help them.

TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. During treatment, a coil is placed against the patient’s scalp and the TMS energy passes through the skull into the outermost layer of the brain. While the idea of electrical brain stimulation has been around for centuries, early techniques involved inserting actual wires — a dangerous and risky procedure. Noninvasive stimulation via electromagnetic energy is much newer — the first successful experimental use took place in the ‘80s. Since then, it’s evolved into a powerful tool for neuroscientists. It’s also a therapeutic tool for stroke recovery, depression, and anxiety relief.

This particular study aimed to use the technique to re-tune the way brain cells communicate, allowing people with autism to better connect to the world and deepen their emotional intelligence — shedding their social blindness. The treatment left Robison momentarily crippled by the weight of other people’s feelings, and he spoke with Science of Us about his experience, which he also discusses in his recently released book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.

How did you come to take part in this therapy?
A grad student from Beth Israel [a hospital in New York City] approached me and said they were doing a study where they were trying to improve the ability of autistic people to see emotions in others.

The idea of using high-powered magnetic fields to develop emotional insight was intriguing to me, maybe because I work in engineering. But also, I’d felt like an outsider for so long. I’d been excluded from connection with the rest of the world. Here was this woman who came with a technology that I was comfortable with, and the possibility of improving something that had caused me considerable pain.

Talk me through the treatment …The researchers had theories for where this mechanism that might suppress the ability to read emotion could be located in human brains, but they hadn’t actually tried to target those areas in people. They had already marked these areas for stimulation on their theoretical map of the brain, and they had to determine where those points in my brain were, looking at me from the outside. During my first visit, they did the brain imaging, and they used that to make a 3-D representation of my brain, referenced to the tips of my ears and nose. They would use those images to locate the TMS coil in the actual sessions, a few weeks later.

The next session was another form of calibration. In it, they used a TMS machine to fire single pulses into my motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that operates the muscles that move our arms and legs. By slowly raising the energy level until my finger started to twitch, they could see how sensitive my brain was to TMS.

Then, they did an IQ test and other tests of my ability to recognize faces and eyes, things like that. During those first visits we were just “establishing a baseline.” It was during my fourth or fifth visit to the lab that I actually started to do the TMS that would “change” me.

What happened?The first thing that was transformative — and nobody expected this — was the stimulation which 
turned on a dormant ability to “see” music.

Read the whole story at NYMag.com

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