Nearly 30 years ago, research was published claiming to have documented recovery from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in some children.
“People were for the most part pretty dubious,” says UConn Distinguished Professor of Psychological Sciences Deborah Fein of the research that was largely brushed off.
Fast forward almost 20 years. In Fein’s own practice, she noticed a subset of kids who seemed to “fall off the spectrum” during their course of treatment for ASD. Why was this true for some children and not others?
“That is when my interest began,” says Fein. She and Inge-Marie Eigsti, associate professor of psychology, have been studying these individuals, whom they refer to as “optimal outcome” or “OO,” ever since. Unlike researchers 30 years ago, they have fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), a powerful technology that lets them peer into the brain in search of nitty-gritty details about how these individuals lose their diagnosis.
Is OO achieved by reverting to typical neural pathways? Do OO individuals use entirely different areas of the brain not typically accessed for certain functions? Why these children?
GETTING UNDER THE HOOD
Fein and Eigsti are using fMRI to find answers inside the brain, looking for patterns that could reveal the ways that interventions and therapies for ASD may have helped these OO individuals lose their symptoms.
“The [fMRI] imaging is important to seeing patterns that have developed as these individuals have compensated,” says Eigsti. “On the outside they appear typically developing; we couldn’t tell them apart from their typically developing peers. One really interesting question this leaves is what’s going on in the brain. Is there a fingerprint or a history of the disorder left in the brain? What is happening under the hood?”
To find out, they had study participants lie in the scanner and read statements while the researchers noted what parts of the brain were active as they processed the information. Some of the phrases were designed to engage areas of the brain more involved with visualization, such as “A pair of glasses turned on its side looks like a snowman, true or false?” Others were designed to illuminate areas of the brain processing language, such as “Thanksgiving Day falls in the month of December, true or false?”
When processing high- and low-visualization language, different areas of the brain are recruited, and the resulting fMRI images give a glimpse into how the mind is piecing together and comprehending information. The results are not immediate, notes Fein. Once the images are taken, a lot of complicated data are crunched before anything can be gleaned.
In this case, the results were somewhat surprising. Rather than the OO participants’ brains resembling their typically developing (TD) peers or their ASD peers, their brains looked different, with aspects of both ASD and TD processing.
With obvious excitement, Eigsti explains that her team noticed “very sharp differences” among the groups. The OO kids were activating distinct areas in the brain that are important in control and attention regulation, motivation, and decision making — and they were showing greater amounts of activation than their ASD or TD peers.
“We saw activation in areas on the left side of their brain involved in classic language processing, but also in those same areas on the right side of the brain, so bilateral activation,” says Eigsti.
“In the past, autism was considered a lifelong disorder,” she adds. “People conceptualize autism in much the same way other lifelong disorders are considered.” These images seem to prove that this isn’t the case.
Deborah Fein’s New York Times article, Some With Autism Diagosis Can Recover, Study Finds