Here I am in the TMS lab at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, with Lindsay Oberman, Phd holding the TMS coil over my head. I'm wearing a cap that has 32 EEG wires in it for brain wave monitoring. And the wires on my hand are picking up tiny electrical signals from the nerves in my thumb and forefinger. It looks kind of nasty but it's actually not uncomfortable at all. There are no holes drilled in me.
You can see the TMS machine behind Lindsay. There's a camera system and monitor out of sight in front of us, telling Lindsay exactly where to place the TMS coil. Behind us there is another computer monitoring brain wave activity throughout the test. In the corner there is a wet or dry shop-vac, in case my head explodes.
Yesterday I went to Boston to participate in this new TMS study. TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) uses powerful focused magnetic fields to induce tiny signals in the brain. These TMS signals can cause permanent changes in our brains by showing us new paths between the neurons in our heads. TMS is currently used to treat depression, and it shows tremendous promise for autism, epilepsy, and a number of other conditions.
Perhaps one day it will even fix me. However, today's study was not aimed at repairing the way I think. Rather, the goal was to evaluate the plasticity of my brain by measuring the circuits that operate my hand. That may seem mundane, but it's actually really important. Studies like these are showing that people on the autism spectrum have more plasticity than neurotypicals, and that difference may be instrumental in shaping our lives.
Plasticity is the brain's ability to form new paths. You might say it's an essential component of learning any new skill. For example, when you learn the way up the stairs and down the hall to your room, you are using plasticity to make a path in your brain that tells your legs what to do to go from the front door to your nest.
The scientists in the TMS lab believe unusual plasticity is the reason I can learn things so fast. There have been many times that I've focused intently on some bit of arcana and become an expert so quickly that other people thought it was unbelievable. It's kind of neat to hear an explanation for that, because I lived so much of my life with people dismissing my abilities as "lucky guesses," or "getting away with something," just because they could not relate.
To hear that greater-than-usual brain plasticity makes that possible is kind of neat. But I'm afraid it's not the whole story. Sure, if I get fascinated by something I devour all I can about my new interest overnight, but there are plenty of topics that don't interest me much, and plasticity does not help me one bit if I have to study them. Is plasticity a kind of fair weather friend, something that only helps with things I like?
Maybe. I don't know, and I'm not sure that anyone else knows either.
It's also not clear why plasticity would give me a great gift - speedy learning - while totally disabling other people on the spectrum. The scientists theorize that excess plasticity may leave some autistic people in a state of permanent confusion because the paths in their heads are constantly shifting. Nothing stays the same.