Part 3: AUTISM AND BRAIN SYSTEMS

Dysfunctions in the centers of the “urge to love”

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In the last section we saw that it is plausible to hypothesize that there could be actual areas of the brain that are concerned with interpersonal relations. If these centers of the brain are damaged, it follows that the person will not experience the same “urge to love” that a “normal” person would. By “normal” I mean a person whose brain centers of interpersonal relations are functioning as they are meant to do.
Of all the developmental disorders (and there are many! Asperger Syndrome and Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, to name a few), autism is perhaps the most fascinating, the most mysterious, and in many ways the most relevant to our discussion of love.
Autism is a complex developmental disability whose signs begin to appear in the first three years of a child’s life. For instance, autistic babies are very uncomfortable with being touched and arch their backs away from the person trying to pick them up. Also, they are often passive or overly agitated and avoid physical contact in general. As children they do not seek out to make friend and shun from any kind of social interactions. Another major characteristic of an autistic person is that he or she has problems with communication skills and in some cases has speech impairment.

Autism used to be considered a consequence of maternal depravation. This seemed plausible at the time since a lot of behavioral studies indicate that children who are deprived of maternal touch and affection do not develop normally. They often have inability to get close to others and shun from touch. This again leads to a conclusion that the brain is a malleable entity that can be influenced and changed structurally by various experiences.

In the case of autism, however, it is now clear that the disorder has a genetic component. Also, it seems to be the case that specific areas of the brain are damaged in the autistic person.

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Significant number of advances have been made in the past few decades in regards to the causes of autism. The various examination of brain anatomy and physiology of autistic people gives us enough of a clue to the nature of this syndrome. The techniques that gave the most information are actually pretty trusted brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging MRI, event related potential (EPR), as well as EEG measurements. I will not go into the details of these techniques since for the purposes of this discussion, I will outline the major research findings.

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MRI image © J.P. Hornak Image © Corbis.com- Owen Franken

Scientists can visualize brain areas of autistic people (using MRI images) as well as study how active they are, i.e. how much electrical activity is seen (remember neurons communicate through electrical signals!). Abnormal brain wave patterns can also be diagnosed by analyzing the EEG patterns of autistic individuals during sleep. These finding are compared to brains of normal individuals. After enough cases scientists can see which areas of autistic individuals behave and look significantly different from “normal” brains.

As I already mentioned,there is a genetic component involved in autism. In a significant subgroup of people with autism there seemed to be a genetic susceptibility that has been proposed to involve more than one gene and may differ across families. Although efforts are underway, actual genes for autism were not identified. These genes are considered to be involved in caring the genetic material that encodes the brain structures and biochemistry of an autistic individual.

The substantial research findings in the area indicate that there are actual functional and structural abnormalities in several brain regions of autistic individuals. The regions are very specific. They have been identified to be in the amygdala, hippocampus, septum, mammillary bodies, and the cerebellum. Actual dysfunctions in the neural structures of these areas has also been identified.

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Interestingly, I came across some studies that point to the idea that the actual biochemistry of these brain areas is also dysfunctional. It is somewhat misleading to differentiate between dysfunctions in neural structure and biochemistry of the brain. We already saw in Part 1 , that chemicals influence behavior and in Part 2 , I alluded to the idea that the way chemicals do this is through their effect on actual brain areas. So we should keep in mind the interaction between the neural structure (brain organization) and the chemistry which takes place in its medium.

What is important to note at this point is that autistic people, while they have problems with social interaction and communication skills, are quite intelligent. Most are perfectly capable of functioning in school at an intellectual level. This bring to the interesting observation that can be made:

THE BRAIN IS ORGANIZED IN SUCH A WAY THAT DYSFUNCTION AT ONE LEVEL OF ORGANIZATION (damage to a particular area of brain) IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A FAIRLY SPECIFIC BEHAVIORAL ABNORMALITY (inability to have “normal” social and communication skills).

So another thing which Kramer’s observations , as well as research on autism, teaches us is that the brain must be organized in such a way that we are capable of the “urge to love.”
One question which I originally had in mind when I started this research was on the lines of: Why is it that people behave well towards others (a behavior that is manifested in the “urge to love”)? There are actually two issues here. The first one is why in a personal sense, and another one has to do with the question of why in an evolutionary sense. I think that taking from the discussion so far; I can answer the first one to a fairly general, but a substantial, extent.

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Adept in Transit

It seems to be the case that the organization of our brain is such that “the urge to love” originates in certain brain systems that process such feelings and social interactions in general. Also, the “urge to love” must originate in these brain systems for if they are damaged, the person no longer will experience it. In fact, he or she will not seek out ways to be close to others, both in emotional and in a physical sense.
The other issue I mentioned has to do with my question of the origins of “the urge to love” in an evolutionary sense. This is the subject of the next section.

LINKS for AUTISM

Autism Resources Links
http://www.autism-resources.com/links.html

Neuroanatomical and Neurophysiological Clues to the Nature of Autism
http://www.mattababy.org/~belmonte/Publications/Papers/98_Garreau/

State-of-the-Science in Autism: Report of the Autism Working Group to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
http://www.nectas.unc.edu/ficc/ficc9711/Bristol.htm

Autism Society of America
http://www.autism-society.org/

The Cerebellum and Autism
http://www.autism.org/cerebel.html

Theory of Mind and Autism
http://www.autism.org/mind.html

Social Behavior in Autism
http://www.autism.org/social.html



Index Introduction Part1 Part2 Part3 Part4 Part5 Part6




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