“Synapses are fundamental units of neuronal connectivity in the brain. It is at these specialized cell junctions that neurons communicate with one another. Many neuroscientists now look to the synapse for principles of learning and memory, for processes underlying behavior, and for pathogenic mechanisms of many neurological diseases.” Guoping Feng, Duke University Lead Researcher.
This is a quote from one of the guys who published research that could rock our future worlds. That hope is in findings which were published on Sunday in the journal, Nature. The research was picked up on Monday by major media outlets, including BBC News (here) and ABC News (here).
One of my Twitter friends, @julesbirdie brought the article to my attention on Monday morning after I published yesterday’s post. @Julesbirdie was full of hope having read this article. She passed it on to me.
On the other hand, another Twitter friend, Tam, @TMBMT, was upset by the research because she felt that the claims did not match the facts. Tam started to express her opinion. Julie expressed hers. The two opinions were divergent. And unfortunately resulted in a falling out between two people who were actually strangers.
Julie was annoyed by Tam’s claims of “false hope.” Julie felt that Tam was pessimistic and research is necessary to cure any malady. Tam was annoyed because she felt the study implied that “all we need to do is fix a specific problem they created in a mouse, to have a solution for autism.” She did not want others to be hurt or disappointed by a study that does not solve autism. And so the disagreement resulted. Perhaps, the two will someday understand each other. I know each has reasons for her opinion and I respect both. (I heard some name-calling was done. I did not see that and express no opinion on it because I did not see it).
The research at issue showed that a certain gene that controls production of a protein called Shank3 in the synapses (the areas between neurons- i.e., brain cells) when mutated causes social problems for mice. The mice brains were found to have defects in the connection between the cortex and striatum of the brain. Healthy connections between these areas are important to regulate social behavior and interaction.
Even though only a minority of people with autism may have this mutated gene, it brings to the forefront with the researchers, the idea that other proteins that control synaptic function may be disrupted in others with autism. If that is true, so they say, then it should be possible to develop treatments that restore synaptic function regardless of the protein showing the deficit. Thus, hope is born.
How fast will all this theory become reality? I have no idea. But each tiny step leads to another which may signal a viable, scientifically based treatment for autism. Will it be a permanent change? Will it be one that requires medication for the rest of one’s life to maintain? I don’t know the answers.
To me, the research is exciting and yet, I know there will be no cure tomorrow, or the next day. I do know that I am still full of hope and possibility for a real working solution to the daily manifestations of differences that subject our children to so many challenges and cruel vitriol within the school day. If there was a drug and someone was handing it to me to use – would I?
The news of this study made me rethink what I wrote about acceptance of my son as he is. Clearly, I love him very much, just as each of us loves our own child. But, this study made me feel hope for him. I was left questioning myself as a potential hypocrite. Had I just written that I love and accept my son as he is, on the one hand, and then profess excitement that a possible treatment may be available someday that would change him?
While others wondered whether they should put much stock in a scientific study that takes a baby step forward toward treating autism, I wondered whether I would actually give such a treatment to my own child. I want to shout out, “Hell, yes!” but does that denigrate who he is now? Does it make me a bad mom?
It makes me, a mom, who despite her talk of treating my son’s disability with respect and equality, will sacrifice all that to make him “normal.” To make it so all he would have to face, is what ever other child faces in the daily drama known as “growing up”. Doing that growing up, on an even playing field without the added stress of a disability that makes you work 20 times as hard to break even with the other kids in your class.
Late yesterday afternoon, I attended my son’s gym class again. The parents were invited to sit inside and watch the children. While all the other kids answered the teacher’s questions: “Where do we go?” “Yes! Station 2” “Very good, Holly!” or whatever the child’s name was. My kid? Sitting in a corner, looking up at an angle, talking to himself or not answering at all, looking down or running to a door with a push handle bar and repeatedly pushing it open.
Running around the gym, the other children were more limber, more in control of the direction of their bodies. Doing somersaults and walking up the wall with their feet. My son? Flopped down on his back on a mat, clueless about how to perform the most basic forward somersault.
Would I give that up if someone handed me a pill that would reconnect these synapses so that his brain could receive messages like the rest of us?
So he could do a somersault, pay attention, answer with the class, and know where his body was in space? Hell, yes. Would it change him? It would make him more confident, more in tune with his surroundings. It would help him use language to respond promptly like his peers. It would remove that invisible cloak of disability. I’d be lying to say I wouldn’t take that pill. I’d take it and then some.
So, I went back and read what I wrote before. I said that I don’t need him to be normal and that I love how he interacts with me at home and how we love each other. I did not say I wouldn’t jump to give him a “cure” if there was one.
In the end what’s true is every parent wants to make life as smooth as possible for their children. If there was a cure for a paraplegic or someone who was hearing impaired, would we take it? Yes, most likely, assuming it was safe enough that the benefits outweighed the risks. So, if there is a “cure” for autism, why would that be any different? It is a neurologically based disability. To remove it, ultimately would take away more obstacles that it would create.
Like everyone else, I am skeptical that this day will come soon. But a story like this does feed my need to hear some positive stuff in life. After the past few weeks that I’ve had, a story like this fed me emotionally. Someone might later take the plate away, but I’m already feeling full of hope for the future. And when you’re hungry, hope can be a very good thing.