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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 the past, autism was considered a lifelong disorder. People conceptualize autism in much the same way other life-long disorders are considered.” These images seem to prove that this isn’t the case.

SHEDDING LIGHT
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.

Discuss

  1. Robert Kirschenbaum says:

    The treatments that are being described and the effects on brain pathways and activation areas demonstrates the effects of “mediated learning experiences” (MLEs) that are at the core of learning social skills. Adults and older children are intentional source of modeling and directed mediation can help autistic children (and others with various forms of brain damage) develop new pathways of learning when traditional, haphazard methods are ineffective. This study shows the new pathways that are developed, which is very encouraging evidence of real changes in the brain that are associated with evidence of real learning.

  2. Leigh says:

    This is interesting research. My 13 year old son has High Functioning Autism and while I would not say he is “cured” I do think we have made great strides. I believe the keys has been early identification, lots of socialization, using every social opportunity as one which we can learn from, pushing him outside of his comfort zone in a healthy and positive way, and lots of support.

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