Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An appearance next week and the latest from the TMS lab

It seems like I’m driving to Boston every week nowadays! If you’re in town next Wednesday, come say hi! I'll be appearing at the Barnes & Noble, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Ave, from noon to 1PM. This is part of the Snell Library Lunch Times Series. Call 617 373 2821 for more info.

Monday night I attended a review of this summer’s work at the TMS lab. I know quite a few blog readers have followed this study since its inception last spring, and you’ve been asking me for the latest news. For those of you who are new to this, the lab is run by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone. It’s located at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which is itself a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

TMS stands for Transcranial magnetic stimulation, the use of high power magnetic fields to induce tiny electrical currents in the brain. Read the Wikipedia entry on TMS here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcranial_magnetic_stimulation

The official lab site is www.tmslab.org

We were able to gather most of the volunteers plus three of the scientists and a few guests. It was actually our first time all together in one place. We reviewed our experiences, listened to the scientist’s presentations, and talked about where we go next.

I promised not to give away any secrets before the scientific papers are published, but I can tell you a few things.

We did two studies this past summer. One study measured brain plasticity in people with high functioning autism or Asperger’s and a neurotypical control group. That study was very interesting, because it showed some dramatic differences between the groups, as well as yielding some remarkable new insights.

I was amazed at how different the results were between us and the nypicals. But what does it mean? That is a subject for further testing and study. As the scientists point out, there are both benefits and drawbacks to any of these brain differences.

Here’s what I think: The more I know about how my brain works, and how it differs from other people, the better off I am. Most of my struggles on the interpersonal front stemmed from a lack of that understanding. For an adult like me, knowledge is truly empowering. And this work is providing insight I’ve never seen before.

The plasticity study was led by Lindsay Oberman, PhD. She’s planning a follow-on study that will begin this winter. Any of you who’d like to participate or know more can write her at loberman@bidmc.harvard.edu

Next we heard from Shirley Fecteau, PhD. Shirley ran a study using TMS to measure and influence mirror neuron function. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that are believed to play a key role in empathy and human communication. And those are two areas where most of us on the spectrum have trouble.

If I were to sum up Shirley’s work in two words, they’d be: Powerful Stuff!

Shirley is working on cutting edge therapies to help strengthen that mirror neuron function in people like me. If you’ve heard me speak, you have seen the promise of this work firsthand. Take a look at the blog archives, for May, and watch the Challenge and Promise of Autism videos to see for yourself.

If you’d like to know more about Shirley’s work, or if you’d like to join the upcoming studies, write her at sfecteau@bidmc.harvard.edu

Shirley will be starting a new study this winter, and we have a new neuroscientist joining the team, Ilaria Minio Paluello from Italy. She will be continuing the work she began in Europe.

It’s an exciting time.

4 comments:

The Anti-Wife said...

John,
These studies are interesting. I look forward to hearing about the next phase.

Stacey said...

Thanks for continuing to write about this. It's fascinating.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Yes, please continue to keep us posted on this. It is so hopeful.

Tammy Lou said...

Hi John! I have read your book and am also an aspergian. It has been really interesting reading about your experiences with TMS (I study psychology and have taken several neuropsychology/psychobiology classes that discuss this technique). I always wondered whether/how it could be used to treat ASD issues and it is great to hear a first person account.

I was wondering if you were aware of/had tried the alpha stim. You hook electrodes up to your ears and it runs a relaxing, pain-relieving current through your head. I have used it for anxiety attacks, insomnia and an eroding cornea with great results. I've always been attracted to electric shock (there were two games I remember playing as a kid that involved shock and I feel oddly compelled to touch electric fences). It's one of very few things that can distract me from overthinking and break mental loops. It is sort of like induced meditation, the current is barely perceptible. The machine is portable and looks like a walkman so it is quite discrete.