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 . . . .
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.