“Discover” The Latest On Autism Research

It’s always exciting to hear about the different kinds of research conducted for medicine and disorders, including and especially for, autism.  In October’s issue of Discover magazine, an article summary on the front page caught my eye.

“Brain-Bending Research: Treating autism, Alzheimer’s and stroke by re-wiring neural circuitry.”

I immediately flipped to it and settled in to read.

For parents who can’t get past all of the biological and neurological jargon, it might be tough to read and tougher to understand, so I’m summing it up here and everyone can go read the article in full on their own.

What the article boils down to is this:

Neuroplasticity, a highly specialized condition of the brain that allows itself to “rewire” when certain areas are damaged, was the focus of this doctor, her team and their research.  The research is ongoing because they have found some very interesting things that most biologists and neurologists didn’t even think existed.  It defied the standard teachings about the biology of the human brain and how it works.

Because it isn’t ethical or even possible to study living brain tissue inside people’s heads, mice are used.  The mice in this case were denied some very important “proteins” that defend against infectious diseases.  If they were to come into contact with the littlest germ, they would die because they have been bred , essentially, to have no immune system.

I stopped reading here.  My heart sank.  If the future treatment for autism was a trade-off between children inside sterile bubbles and having autism, I think I’d choose the autism.  I read on, anyway.

What happened to these mice next blew me away.  I had heard from many science shows on TV how kids and young adults had almost completely recovered from horrific head traumas and that the brain finds other routes to work, but this new research was just fascinating.  Although the special proteins that aided in the mice’s immune defenses had been taken away, their brains rewired such that the remaining proteins left in the brain caused the neuroplasticity in their little brains to turn them into brainiac mice.  It didn’t matter how old or young the mice were, their brains rewired to think better, problem solve better, reason better and strategize better.

This new data means that the neurological conditions wherein the human brain has been “attacked” and altered might be reversible, or stopped at a point that it does not progress.  Children with autism might never be diagnosed as having autism, and adults with ALS or Alzheimer’s could live longer, fuller better functioning lives.  The only trick is, they would have to produce a medication that only affects the brain and not the body.

These specific proteins are referred to as MCHI.  They hide out in the blood brain barrier but perform and entirely different function there then they do in the rest of the body.  They exist for the immune system in the rest of the body, but act as mini neuroplastic devices for the brain.  What that actually means is that they fix damaged areas of the brain and reroute functions to another area, helping to “switch it/ switch it on”.  According to the article, the doctor’s paper on all of this was published well over fifteen years ago, which means she and her team have come a long way since then.

Because a lot of neurologists believe that autism is a neurological condition and not just a physical or psychological one, the impact this research has on thousands of children is really meaningful.  Although it’s not likely that children who are currently diagnosed with autism will directly benefit from this research, ten to twenty years down the road when other children are diagnosed most definitely will.  By then, today’s children will be in their twenties and thirties, but the hope is that there will be a “neuroplasticity pill” that can make a serious difference in their lives nonetheless.

A rewired autistic brain means they would all be able to speak.  They might have less complications with sound, touch, taste, sight and smell.  They would be less anxious in large groups and more comfortable with people in general.

The flip side, and this is just conjecture  based on the article and the research findings, is that the first test subjects might have to spend their entire lives in a germ free lab.  They might lose some of the magnificent intellectual abilities they have or those abilities might be doubled, turning their brains into “superhuman intellect”.  It could even switch on “dead zones” in the brain during the rewiring process; no one knows for sure, and that is all much further down the road.

Latest findings in the same research by the same doctor shows that new motor neurons (cells in the brain) and the synapses (connections made between cells) are regrown.  That’s pretty intense, because they act as the brain’s “delivery system” for everything else the brain and body do.  Since autism scans of the brain show a deficit in the right kinds of cells, scientists may be much closer to solving the  autism puzzle than we really know or think.

Right now, parents will have to accept their children as they are and contend with the behaviors and challenges as best as they can, but a couple of decades from now that could be quite different.  Then parents will have to decide if they want their children to “be as normal as possible” or stay just as they are.  That is a seriously tough call for any parent who loves his/ her child.

At any rate, the article was truly fascinating an a great read.  It certainly would give any reader and parent of an autistic child pause, and some serious food for thought.  The usual “what if” questions surface, and you’re left wondering just what you would do in that futuristic situation of choice versus the present “no choice”.  A lot of parents might, but then again, a lot of parents love their children no matter what and wouldn’t.

Would you?

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