A Return to the TMS Lab

John Elder Robison Community Member

    Yesterday Cubby and I returned to the TMS lab at Harvard's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to commence another round of studies. Those of you who are new to TMS can read some of last year's posts here:


    This spring, we have two studies going on. One is measuring brain plasticity, comparing people with Asperger's to nypicals (people who don't have autism.) The other study involves the use of TMS to change cognitive processes - altering the way we think.

    Today I'd like to tell you a little bit about the brain plasticity study. I'll begin with a definition. Brain plasticity is a phrase that describes the brain's natural ability to form new connections. What does that mean, you ask? Here's an example from my own life . . . .

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    A few years ago, I was shoveling snow in my driveway when I felt something tear. By the next morning, pain had set in and I couldn't lift my right arm anymore. I'd damaged my shoulder. I could still type with my right arm, but I could not make the sweeping motions to move the mouse for my computer.

    I was in real trouble. The computer and the mouse were essential to my job, and I suddenly found myself unable to do the work. Luckily I am self-employed and not subject to arbitrary dismissal.

    Some people would have seized that opportunity to quit work for a month-long binge, but not me. I resolved to stay at it, and master that mouse. I began training my left arm in mouse management. Within a week I had become proficient enough that I wasn't really handicapped at the computer anymore.

    Now, five years later, my shoulder has healed fully but I remain ambi-mouserous.

    That is a perfect example of brain plasticity in action. Over the space of a week, my brain formed the necessary connections to move the mouse smoothly with my left hand. The essential elements were always there, but the paths needed clearing to work smoothly. You might imagine that as the mental equivalent of clearing overgrowth from an old railroad line to make a bike path. Once it was clear I could run it fast and smooth. Before that, I stumbled and hacked.

    So how does that relate to autism, you ask? After all, anyone can clear brush or get a shoulder injury. Here is the answer:

    For several years, neuroscientists have thought that people with autism might have more brain plasticity than nypicals. The tests we did in Alvaro's TMS lab (http://www.tmslab.org/ ) bear that out, and they do so in a dramatic way. What the testing shows is that people like me DO indeed have more plasticity. We are now unraveling what that means in terms of life skills, advantages, and handicaps.

    The evidence suggests that plasticity helps me adapt to something like a shoulder injury much faster than a nypical person. I seem to be able to compensate rapidly for changes in my senses. That could be very significant in some work environments. For example, if I flew helicopters in the Army, I'd be able to switch from visual flying to night vision goggles faster than nypical people. That could be a life-saving benefit.

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    When it comes to clearing paths in my mind, I've got a Caterpillar bulldozer, where nypicals have machetes.

    But if I try to do too many things, my greater plasticity can bring me to a halt. I can see that in my son, Cubby. He knows more about certain organic chemistry than his professors, but when he takes four courses he loses it all in disorganization and confusion. That too is a result of his greater plasticity.

    Scientists theorize that people who are disabled by autism may live in a state of perpetual confusion because their brains change even faster than mine, so much so that they never find stability.

    Here's another fascinating discovery that's come from the lab . . . that bulldozer in my mind makes much bigger tracks that the nypical's machete. That means my "return to normal" is slower than it is for nypicals. That's the counterpoint to my rapid adaptation. De-adaptation is several times slower.

    I've seen that in real life, when I switch from driving my boat with "regular eyes" to the night vision goggles. I adapt almost instantly, while other people on the boat are slower to adjust. But then when I take the goggles off, I am the one who's slower to return to normal. That may well happen because I form stronger and deeper paths, thanks to my greater plasticity.

    This may be a tremendously important discovery when it comes to growing up. If we can identify a specific brain difference like plasticity, and we can associate that with advantages and differences in brain function (like the examples I gave) we may be able to shape the learning environment of tomorrow's kids to achieve far greater life successes.

    That's a great goal to work toward.

    Stay tuned for more essays on this, and feel free to paw through my blog archives for older material. If you'd like to do further research, Alvaro Pascual Leone and the other scientists I'm working with can be found at http://www.tmslab.org/ Another blog you may find interesting is Running A Hospital, by Paul Levy, the Chief of Beth Israel Medical Center


    If you'd like to learn more about participating in these groundbreaking studies, I encourage you to write directly to Shirley or Lindsay, two of BIDMC's wonderful scientists:

    Lindsay Obermann
    Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
    Harvard Medical School

    Shirley Fecteau
    Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
    Harvard Medical School



    For more of John's insights check out his blog Look Me in The Eye


Published On: April 28, 2011