Auitsm and Echopraxia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post on echolalia, this week I’d like to briefly discuss the phenomenon echopraxia.

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Yes I know, it’s another mouthful, but what exactly is echopraxia?

Echopraxia (also known as echomotism or echokinesis) is a type of tic disorder characterized by involuntary imitation of another persons actions e.g. waving a hand, touching your nose, kicking something, even facial expressions. Echopraxia is one of the core features of Tourette’s syndrome, however it has also been found to occur in ASD’s. It is often paired with echolalia, but it has been known to occur independently in autists.

I know what you’re thinking- imitation of actions is critical to early development in childhood and perfectly “normal” behaviour, so it seems like echopraxia might be reading into things too much. However, when this behaviour persists and becomes reactionary rather than a learning tool, then it can be viewed from a pathophysiological  perspective. As such, it can be very difficult to diagnose this behaviour in children. 

So what does the science have to say about echopraxia and autism?

There’s very limited research in this area, however experts believe that echopraxia is related to damage or dysfunction within the frontal lobe known as the action cortex of the brain- an area that is often implicated in autistic behaviours. Other’s have theorized that abnormalities in the mirror neurons located here may be responsible.

Nope, I’m afraid mirror neurons are not quite this exiting- mirror neurons are in fact a particular type of nerve cell that fires when a person or an animal acts and witnesses another person complete the same action. This type of behaviour has been particularly observed in primates, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

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In general, echopraxia is considered harmless, however if it starts to interfere with social functioning, then behavioural modifications, medications and psychotherapy are possible treatment options 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

 

Research News Update July 2018

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

The world of research is fast paced- every day new studies are published telling us new and exciting things about the human body. As the scientific community has yet to pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms involved in autism, the wheel of research is constantly churning out new evidence to provide us with a better picture of the autistic brain.

Since my previous post about the neuroscience of autism, there have been several new and exciting insights into the physiology of the autistic brain, so I’ve decided to give you a brief summary of the research! 🙂

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Folding in the Brain

In recent weeks a study has emerged that suggest that symptoms of autism may be attributed to excessive folding in the brain.

No- I’m not talking origami, but the formulation of the squiggly ridges or ‘folds’ that make up the brain (by a process known as gyrification) as you can see in the gif below:

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Brain tissue folds to allow for a greater surface area for cognitive functioning within the cramped confines of the skull- like a bar of chocolate melts quicker when you break the pieces up, so too does the folded brain work more efficiently than if the surface were smooth.

Recent research shows that autists brains may not fold in the same way as their neurotypical peers. Some regions of the brain, such as those associated with facial recognition are smoother in autists, whereas other areas such as the temporal (sensory processing) and frontal lobes (memory and attention) show signs of exaggerated folding. Excessive folding in these areas could explain sensory sensitivities in autists, in addition to variations in memory and attention deficits. On the other hand, decreased folding in the occipital lobe may explain why autists struggle with facial reading and processing 🙂

Brain Shape

In addition to folding, recent research has focused on the cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) which contains roughly 80% of the neurons of the brain whilst only taking up 10% of it’s total volume! Thought to be associated with implicit learning (learning without awareness like learning to ride a bike or to swim), sensory function and cognitive function, 3D analysis of MRI data suggests that the shape and structure of the cerebellum may be different in autism. It appears that in some autists the cerebellum is flatter on the right side (the flatter the tissue, the lower the efficiency of the brain), but in autists with higher functioning social skills the structure is closer to that of a neurotypical individual- which may explain some of the communication difficulties associated with autism as the right side of the cerebellum is associated with language processing.

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Abnormal Brain Connections

MRI scans of preschoolers with autism have provided more evidence that the autistic brain is abnormally connected. In this study it appears that a number of brain networks connecting different areas of the brain show significant differences from neurotypicals. A number of components of the basal ganglia network in particular were altered in autism (which plays an important role in behaviour). Differences were also found in the para-limbic network which is also involved in behaviour in addition to emotional processing, motivation and self-control.

This may indicate the use of MRI scans to obtain faster autism diagnoses in the future, but it’s still very much early days 🙂

There we have it now dear Earthlings, hope you hadn’t missed me too much while I was away.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” 😛

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This is a fairly common complaint for autists when it comes to clothing.

A single sharp fiber in your skinny jeans, an irritating label on your neck, a twisted bra- the niggling is a killer to the autistic brain!

When my skin is irritated, I find it very difficult to concentrate on much else until the offending stimulus is removed. It drives me insane- especially if I’m not in a position to remove or adjust the offending item of clothing. I’ve often had to find creative ways to navigate clothing irritation when out in public such as well placed blister plasters (I did this to the irritating clasp of a lanyard once!) and toilet roll to create barriers against the fabric!

Needs must after all! 😉

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But is my skin really this sensitive?

According to science, the answer is yes!

Research suggests that gene mutations cause problems for the sensory nerves in our hands, legs, arms, fingers and of course, the skin covering them. Mutations cause these nerves to be excessively sensitive- described by scientists as having the volume turned up to the max setting. When these nerves relay sensory information back to the brain, the brain feels the touch of certain stimuli at a heightened, exaggerated level.

Hence my internal screams! 😛

Another study, which tested the response of autists and neurotypicals to sensory stimuli (e.g. a scratchy wool jumper) in a brain scanner, found that the autistic brain reacts more strongly. The primary cortex of the brain (involved in sensory processing) and the amygdala (involved in emotional regulation) were both hyperactive during this experiment, suggesting that autists a) process sensory input differently, and b) struggle to regulate their emotional response to stimuli.

So what can you do to help an autist with sensitive skin?

This is a tough one to advise. Sensitivities vary from person to person. Some may favour loose clothing, others enjoy the comfort of tight clothes which provide calming deep pressure. In my experience, the best tip that I can offer is to use a seam ripper to properly remove labels (the remnants of the tag can be just as irritating). After that, trial and error is the best way to find out what works for you/or your child 🙂

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned 😛 ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to dive into the physiology of the autistic brain to explain what’s actually going on at the neurological level. I’ve touched on aspects of the science in previous posts, but I wanted to give you a quick overview post where the main points in the one place 🙂

So let’s get down to some science! 🙂

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Hyper-connected Neurons:

Scientific evidence suggests that neurons in the autistic brain are hyper-connected. Specifically, studies indicate that autists have too many synapses in the brain. The synapse is basically a gap or a junction between two neurons where chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) carry information like a ferry from one neuron to the next. It looks a little bit like this:

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During normal brain development, about half of the synapses we are born with are “pruned” off. In autism, this process is slowed down, and so autistic children have an excessive amount of synapses compared with their neurotypical peers. As these connections are essential to communication between neurons, this can greatly effect how the brain works and processes information.

Dysfunction at the Junction:

In addition to possessing an excessive number of synapses, communication at these neuronal junctions is also impaired in the autistic brain.

Animal studies have indicated that synapses function differently in the autistic brain as a result of genetic mutation. Mutations cause certain proteins to be absent in autism- proteins that are essential to the normal functioning of the synapse. As a consequence of this, the transmission of information between neurons is affected, resulting in a number of social and behavioral issues.

Think of physical junctions on a busy road- if something goes wrong at the junction, a chain of chaos will ensue!

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Hyper-excitable Neurons:

Research shows that in many cases of autism, neurons in certain regions of the brain are more excitable than others. This means that these neurons are more sensitive to stimulation. For example, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain (which processes sensory information such as smell), are more sensitive and excitable than other neurons. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

This sensitizes the autistic brain to all kinds of stimuli as discussed here.

Dysregulated Neurotransmitter levels:

As previously mentioned, information travels across the synapses in the brain via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In the autistic brain, the levels of these neurotransmitters are dysregulated- or out of sync. Research indicates that individuals with autism tend to have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamic acid) and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) causing neurons in the autistic brain to fire excessively. In addition to this, levels of the neurohormone (a chemical that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter) oxytocin, which plays an influential role in trust and social behaviours, are also out of balance. Moreover, dopamine (a neurotransmitter which can both calm and excite) is also dysregulated in autism. Together, the action of biochemicals like these influences a number of autistic behaviours and issues such as ADHD, mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety, sensory processing, social behaviours, learning, memory and emotional responses.

Male vs Female Brain

Perhaps one of the most fascinating  things that I have discovered about autism are the anatomical differences between the brains of the male and female autist. Brain imaging studies have revealed that autistic women have brains that are anatomically similar to neurotypical male brains, and the brains of male autists share anatomical similarities to those of neurotypical female brains.

In short- this indicates that men with autism have feminine brains, and women with autism have masculine brains!!!

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I know!!!!

It sounds weird, but it makes a world of sense. Oftentimes I’ve felt like I had a male brain growing up- my tomboyish interests, my fashion sense, my preference for male company, my inability to walk in heels; it all fits!

Strange but true! 🙂

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain 🙂 There is no clear mechanism through which autism acts, these are just some of the likely pathways involved. I’ll explore other possible mechanisms in a later post.

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

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