Why would some people be disabled by this, and others gifted? No one knows. Perhaps we're totally wrong, or perhaps there are other factors at work. The more I learn about this work, the more I see how unfathomably complex even the simplest brains are. Today's science is far from unraveling the mental secrets of a mouse; they are just scratching the surface with creatures like me.
All brains have some amoount of plasticity, since it's essential to learn new skills. It's just a matter of degree. It's possible that some parts of my brain are exceptionally plastic, and others aren't. So maybe the distribution of plasticity makes a difference or explains why some parts of me are really smart wile others are pretty oblivious. Future studies may help answer that question.
Until then, we can just ponder how it is that plasticity can confer both genius and profound disability, perhaps even in the same person. I told you how scientists at the lab attribute much of my learning ability to plasticity. At the same time, they blame my social blindness in part on plasticity too. Dr. Lindsay Oberman - the scientist conducting this study - explained.
Neurotypical people might have one path in their heads to recognize facial expressions. By the time they grow up, that path is well worn and familiar. People with high plasticity (referring to me) might have a hundred paths, or a thousand, and they are all smaller. So plasticity has put a lot more options inside our heads, but they are so complex that they don't run fast like an NT person. The result - a social disability.
What a paradox.
And now we get to the good part . . . plasticity may be changeable. Some brand-new studies have suggested that TMS can change the plasticity of parts of the brain. And other studies are exploring the possibility of using drugs to change plasticity. So we may be on the brink of being able to reduce plasticity in people who have too much.
But what will that mean?
If plasticity is the explanation for my social disability and exceptional focus and learning, I'd stay just the way I am, thank you. However, not all autistic people share my gifts. If I saw myself as more disabled than gifted, I might well make a different choice with respect to plasticity. If I could take a pill and watch my disability fade as my brain build strong pathways that would be almost magical. But would it play out that way? No one knows.
It's possible we'd have to change plasticity in early childhood to make a dramatic difference. In that case, parents would have to make a life-changing treatment decision before they really knew the extent of their child's future gift or disability. And by choosing less plasticity, they might be saying "NO" to the possibility of exceptional skills or creative genius. Or maybe not. Again, no one knows.
Parents and doctors may be facing some really tough choices soon, if these drugs and therapies pan out. For the only way to know what will happen is to try them on kids. Are you ready to line up?