Science Thursday: Cause & Treatment (The Amish and Brain Plasticity)

I was never a student of science.  I was a student of the law.  Funny thing about becoming a lawyer, is that I often had to learn bits and pieces of other professions and jobs, including medicine, because many of my past cases involved the practice of medicine and whether or not it met the “reasonable” standard of care.  I had to learn about orthopedics and neurosurgery, mostly, sometimes delving into areas of injury to lungs, nephrology and urology.

Sometimes, I have to believe that all that training was to prepare me for parenting my child on the spectrum.  I always looking for understanding, awareness and information which I can use to make inquiries to medical professionals and seek answers.  Often, I have no idea what I am doing.  That lack of understanding has led me down the path of alternatives such as diets, oxygen therapy, B12 shots and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.  While those alternatives might be right for some, I ended up on a different path.

In stumbling into my pediatrician’s office and mentioning alternatives, together with a potential neurology consult, I ended up on a traditional medical path.  My son is receiving neurological treatment for his neurological disability.  For now, that is giving us progress and we will stay on this path.

All that being said, I have not become complacent in my quest for science and understanding of autism, just because I place trust and respect in our neurologist.  I still search, read and look for answers.  In sharing some information I recently came across, I certainly don’t mean to review things you may have heard of long ago and discounted.  It’s new to me and so, just maybe, it’s new to you too.

The first thing I found this week involves cause.  Before my son was diagnosed with autism, in about 2008, there were discussions in the community of how the Amish have a much lower prevalence of autism than the surrounding population of non-Amish people. Some argued that the difference in autism rates was based on vaccinations versus non-vaccinations.

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, Professor and Co-Director of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 and inaugurated into the Institute of Medicine, vaccination was not the likely culprit.  Instead, in a post of his own, which you can find here, he talked about the perinatal anoxia that occurs with pre-placental delivery clamping of the umbilical cord as a potential cause of autism.  Both the Amish and Somali populations which do not clamp the cord prior to the delivery of the placenta have exceptionally low rates of autism (Somali rates are high in the United States, not in their own country).

This is interesting as a potential cause but not of any consequence to those of us who cannot unring the bell.  Instead of looking at causes, we look for treatments and accommodations to help those who have autism flourish in the now.  And the interesting information I found is also related to Dr. Merzenich.

Dr. Merznich has done a TED (Ideas Worth Spreading) talk.  This man is a fast talker but his talk is fascinating and encouraging.  In the discussion I have linked to, he talks about the plasticity of the brain, the ability of the brain to adapt, re-wire and change.  And that it can do so in the face of learning disabilities.

First, he speaks generally about how much our brains change over our lifetimes.  We are all unique individuals because each experience we have is unique to us and leaves a memory and information for the brain for the future encounters of a similar nature.  So much goes on in the first year of life that he divides the life span into two epochs – the first being the first year of life and the second being the rest of our lives!

Dr. Merzenich discusses how the study of the brain has enabled scientists to understand plasticity.  He discusses how our brains compensate for “noise” that interferes with acquisition of information such as water in the middle ear of children who were born with cleft palates.  Whereas more than 35 years ago, children born with the cleft palates were considered cognitively slow, he explains how they were receiving “noise” in their brains instead of hearing language because of the water in the tubes.  When the problem is corrected very early after birth, the processing in the brain is corrected and the development is normalized.

He explains how we are in control of our brains’ learning capacity and can train our brains to compensate for injury, working around disability to improve learning and lives.

TED has some great discussions.  Dr. Merznich is one of them.  I know 23 minutes is a lot to ask.  If you want to get down to it, go in about 14 minutes and he will discuss the compensation and learning disability aspect of it.

We can all use the brain aerobics he talks about toward the end… and so my contribution is in sharing this talk with all of you!


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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8 Responses to Science Thursday: Cause & Treatment (The Amish and Brain Plasticity)

  1. blogginglily says:

    I’ll have to revisit this when I’m off the clock.

    As the father of a daughter who has strabismus (the technical meaning of which is “eye crossy thingy”) I’m aware of a fantastic example of the plasticity of the brain. In children who have eyes that tend to cross. . . where one eye is dominant and does all the work, and the other eye just sorta relaxes and enjoys the ride like my damn freshman roommate in the dorms. . . the brain eventually just SHUTS OFF the other eye. It ignores the input so that the images aren’t crossed. As a result, the kiddo eventually (if left untreated) goes more or less blind in that eye.

    • solodialogue says:

      That is such a great example of how the brain can re-train itself! My stepdaughter had that as well and was able to overcome it. Plasticity gives us all hope and helps to explain for me, the way that ABA can help retrain and rewire the circuitry of the brain. Thanks, Jim! 🙂

  2. Karla (Mom2MissK) says:

    I’ve got to ditto Jim on the argument for plasticity as well. As you already know, Little Miss suffered a brain injury at birth known as PVL. The neurologist who read her MRI was admittedly surprised at the severity of the injury and said something to the effect of “if I had not met (Little Miss) first, I would have expected a child with significantly more signs of physical disability.”

    This is one of those areas where I truly believe that early intervention is key. We recognized Little Miss had difficulties very early on and had her in OT and PT long before her second birthday. In my opinion, this work we have done to re-train LM’s brain has made all the diference!

    • solodialogue says:

      The brain is an amazing thing, isn’t it? We use it to think but we need to think of ways to use it more!

      LM is so lucky, lucky, lucky to have you as a mommy! (((Hugs)))

  3. Great post!! I’ll def have a look at the video when it’s not 1:30 AM! (PS I posted this all over facebook and stubled it as well, thanks for the great info!)

  4. ElizOF says:

    I will check in and read it carefully soon. Meanwhile your analysis is fascinating especially on the clamping of the umbilical cord… You have delved into quite a lot of science on this blog and we are all the richer for it .TY! 🙂

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