Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

So let’s get down to some science! πŸ™‚

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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 Β 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! πŸ™‚

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain πŸ™‚ 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! πŸ™‚

Aoife

 

Social Awkwardness & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Soooo today we’re going to talk about perhaps one of the biggest banes of my life- social awkwardness! πŸ˜›

I’m not going to lie- social awkwardness is not fun. The constant fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say, the burning sensation in your face that’s never far away (huzzah for unintentional rhyming! πŸ˜€ ).

This article sums up the feeling pretty nicely through gifs’ s:

http://mashable.com/2013/08/15/awkward-gifs/#N36QeeXevGqn

Sitting awkwardly by yourself waiting for friends to arrive in a pub, tapping your glass and constantly sipping just to look like you belong, the pitying glances of bar staff when they see you at a table alone-the awkwardness can be all consuming.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to run from/avoid social encounters because of this awkward feeling.

Awkwardness is worse still when you’re hit by memories of previous awkward encounters! It’s a real domino effect- one awkward memory brings dozens more to the surface until you’re drowning in the red hot embarrassment of a cringe attack! πŸ˜›

I am constantly haunted by memories of my social awkwardness, buuuut as time goes on, you eventually learn not to dwell on your social failings πŸ™‚

It’s a struggle yes, but you can push through the awkwardness. Over the years I’ve devised ways to navigate the rapids- making self deprecating jokes, keeping a mental list of backup topics for awkward silences, chugging a drink you’ve been bought (but don’t like) while your friend is in the bathroom so they don’t see your disgusted facial expressions πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Social awkwardness may be a pain, but ultimately you can’t let the fear of getting wet keep you from swimming the social seas πŸ™‚

Who knows-you might even put your awkward stories to good use in a blog some day! Comedy is tragedy plus time after all! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

But is there any scientific reason for our social awkwardness?

Remember oxytocin?

Scientists have linked gene variations in the oxytocin receptor (which allows oxytocin to bind and interact with the body) to autism. Evidence indicates that people with autism have a specific variation in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which makes it more difficult for them to empathize, read facial expressions and social situations- predisposing us to social awkwardness.

In addition to this, psychologists have suggested that social awkwardness is all about perception. Awkwardness is thought to be influenced by the individuals perception of how a social situation should play out versus reality. If a social interaction does not go as planned…then the awkward turtle swims into view!

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This is a particularly interesting hypothesis. Oftentimes I find myself feeling awkward when silence falls in social settings as I perceive conversational silence to be awkward….aaaand then I tend to ramble on nonsensically to fill that silence! πŸ˜›

In reality, the silence may not in actual fact be awkward. Companionable silence is perfectly natural; the awkwardness I feel may inadvertently be of my own creation!

So it seems that perhaps social awkwardness in autism comes from the disparity between perception and reality in social interaction.

Social awkwardness is also thought to ironically help people improve their social skills! It has been theorized that social awkwardness acts as a warning system to help us to recognize that we have made social mistakes so that we will not repeat them in the future.

Seeing as autists struggle with social communication and interaction, it stands to reason that we often feel awkward so that we might improve our social skills in the future.

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So social awkwardness may in fact serve a purpose in autism! πŸ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism 101- Digestive Problems

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss the issue of digestive problems for people on the spectrum- but don’t worry, I’ll stick to the science! I won’t regale you with any personal tales on this occasion πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are among the most commonly associated conditions with autism.

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Evidence suggests that autists may be over 3.5 times more likely to suffer from issues such as diarrhea, constipation, food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux diseaseΒ (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).

I know- not the most pleasant of subjects, but we can all be adults right? πŸ˜‰

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Joking aside- these are serious issues for people with autism, especially for children. Autists are already sensitive to such stimuli as sound and touch. Adding GI discomfort to the mix can make things so much more difficult. The associated pain from these conditions can worsen behaviors, and in some cases, trigger regressions.

So what does science have to say about all of this?

As with autism, it’s another game of Cluedo- research is ongoing to determine ‘who-dunnit’. There are many suspects, but the culprit remains unclear.

Bacterial Abnormalities & Carbohydrate Digestion-The gut is home to trillions of bacteria naturally living in harmony with us. Β Our gut provides them with food and shelter, and in return they digest certain dietary substances and produce vitamins B and K for us to absorb. This forms what is known as the gut microbiome. Ordinarily bacteria and hostΒ exist in harmony, however, if there is an overabundance of certain bacterial strains, this can lead to a number of GI problems. Studies have shown that such overabundance exists in children with autism.

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Abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion have also been reported in cases of autism. The cells of the intestines appear to have difficulty in breaking down and transporting carbohydrates in the gut causing malabsorption of these vital nutrients.

It’s been suggested that these issues with carbohydrates may be connected to the high level of bacteria present in the autistic gut as digestive alterations may influence nutrient availability within the microbiome, but further investigation is needed.

Furthermore, in recent years, evidence is emerging that gut microbes can influence brain development and behavior!

Wuttttttt???!!!

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I know!!!

In particular, there is evidence to suggest that people with autism are missing one specific bacterium- Lactobacillus reuteri.

One study in mice showed that following the addition of this bacterial strain to their diet, Β the natural microbiome of the was gut restored AND further restored some behaviors associated with ASD’s! Interestingly,Β L. reuteri promotes the production ofΒ oxytocin, which as previously discussed, is essential for human bonding and social behavior.

Who knew that bacteria could control our brains this way?!

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Brain-Gut Communication and the Role of Serotonin-As in the picture below, the brain and the gut share a very close relationship in the human body.

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The gut in actual fact has it’s own complex nervous system (the enteric nervous system) which regulates the activity of the gut- kind of like a second brain. Together, the gut and the brain form what is known as the brain-gut axis, a two way street where each can influence the other. For example, signals travelling from gut to brain can influence satiety, whereas stress/anxiety signals from the brain to the gut affect gut sensitivity.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate) within this axis. For example, serotonin plays an important role in the control of intestinal motility. As such, alterations in serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of GI problems.

But how does this relate to autism?

Yep- you guessed it, serotonin levels, like oxytocin, are dysregulated in autism, and therefore likely contribute to associated GI issues.

Further to this, there is also evidence to suggest that certain gut bacteria are involved in the production of serotonin in the body by interacting with serotonin producing cells (enterochromaffin cells). So perhaps alterations in these serotonin producing bacterial colonies may also contribute to these GI issues.

Diet-As people with autism often have restrictive eating habits, it was proposed that perhaps diet may contribute to GI issues. However, studies have shown that although autistic diets may differ, overall nutritional intake does not. On the other hand, many people report improvements in both GI and autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy) free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

Genetics-Β Finally, scientists believe that as with autism, genetic abnormalities likely contribute to these GI issues. Moreover, as autism and GI problems are so frequently linked, researchers have suggested that perhaps they both share the same underlying genetic mutation or may be caused by some other unknown biological mechanism.

So there we have it! πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this ‘alimentary’ introduction to digestive issues and the spectrum! πŸ˜‰

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Aoife

Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality

Greetings earthlings! πŸ™‚

As we are approaching Valentines Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore the romantic side of autism a little bit.

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When it comes to romance and the spectrum, this is what most people think of:

Prior to my diagnosis, I too would have pictured this scene.

Asexuality, or lack of sexual attraction/interest, is often associated with autism. However, whilst asexuality occurs more frequently in the autistic community compared with the neurotypical population, one size does NOT fit all.

Stereotype Alert!!!Β The majority of people with autism are not asexual- we want to experience love just as much as the next person!

In fact, studies have shown no marked differences in sexual interests and behaviours when compared with neurotypicals…we’re just a little bit worse at the whole initiation/communication side of relationships! πŸ˜›

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Our social struggles can make it quite difficult to convey our intentions and feelings in romantic situations. As previously discussed (see empathy), we struggle to identify our own emotions to ourselves, let alone convey them to another person!

According to Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood, there is a tendency among adolescents with AS to seek out the relationship advice we are lacking from rather unreliable sources… Males tend to derive their information from pornography, while girls turn to soaps, rom-coms and books, failing to recognize that these works are not reflective of the real world.

You may think that surely we would be able to tell fact from fiction…. buuuutttt, this is a fairly accurate description. I’ve be been burned this way in the past! Let’s just say that I attempted to apply something I read in a book to reality…and it backfired…spectacularly! πŸ˜›

In addition to these social struggles, the sensation of touch can also be an issue for many people with autism in romantic entanglements. Studies have shown that gene mutations associated with autism can cause hypersensitivity to the sensation of touch. As a result, we oftentimes shy away from physical contact, which can give the impression of romantic indifference.

Advice for friends, family & significant others: If we brush off your touch, it’s generally nothing personal. Just be patient. We can learn to condition ourselves to touch over time πŸ™‚

In my own experience, trust can be especially important when it comes to physical intimacies.

Thankfully, I’m not particularly sensitive to touch, but I don’t like people I don’t trust having physical contact with me.

For example, contrary to common autism stereotypes, I very much enjoy a nice hug- but only if I trust/feel comfortable around that person.

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I’ve always felt that hugs are an intimate experience, so for me to hug someone that I don’t like or trust feels wrong. Over time I’ve conditioned myself to accept unwanted hugs to uphold social etiquette, but my heart’s not in the action.

Many people with autism have issues with trust. In a world that doesn’t make sense , it can be very hard to discern what is trustworthy from what is not. Where black and white thinking is concerned, one bad experience can ruin your trust in an instant.

But ruins can be rebuilt- it just takes a little bit of time πŸ™‚

 

Considering all these challenges that we face in the pursuit of love, might there be any underlying biological factors contributing to our romantic ineptitude?

Few studies have explored sexuality and relationships in autism, however, from my reading of the research one hormone stands out from the crowd- oxytocin.

Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone, has been linked to autism in a number of studies. Research has shown that levels of oxytocin are dysregulated in individuals with autism.

This is basically a fancy science term meaning that our oxytocin levels are out of sync! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Oxytocin is thought to contribute to a human’s ability to effectively socialize. For example, studies correlate oxytocin levels to degree of social functioning whereΒ low oxytocin levels are linked with diminished social functioning and high oxytocin concentrations are associated with augmented social functioning.

Evidence suggests that levels are lower in cases of autism, with the lowest concentrations in low functioning forms and higher concentrations in high functioning cases.

Oxytocin is perhaps best known for it’s role in the formation of emotional bonds, as it is released when we cuddle up to or bond socially with a person. Research suggests that it even plays an important role in emotional bonding with man’s best friend, with levels rising in both owner and pet after several minutes of stroking! πŸ™‚

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Oxytocin has further been shown to increase trust in humans, so it stands to reason that lower oxytocin levels present in autism can make it harder to trust, interact with and connect with a person romantically.

Moreover, recent studies indicate that oxytocin also plays an important role in the strengthening of negative social memories. It appears that following a stressful social encounter, such as bullying or romantic rejection, oxytocin activates a part of the brain which causes the memory to intensify, promoting anxiety and fear in similar situations.

Seeing as oxytocin is dysregulated, this could also explain why autists find romantic situations difficult. I’ve certainly found that previous failures in this area have made me quite hesitant to reveal my feelings to guys for fear of reliving those moments!

Autism, like love, is truly complicated πŸ˜›

In keeping with my Valentine’s theme, I’ll discuss love and the spectrum in greater detail on Monday! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

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