Best of 2010
Brain Speed, Language and Autism
Research on the speed of brain rhythms may improve the prognosis for families struggling with autism.
To illustrate his autism research, Dr. John Welsh plays a clip of Sean Shannon, the world’s fastest talker. Shannon has the bizarre ability to recite 11 words per second; in the recording, he blasts through Hamlet’s 278-word “to be or not to be” soliloquy in just 24 seconds.
The performance comes across as gibberish, and illuminates a potentially revolutionary insight into autism. Just as the brains of normal people don’t oscillate fast enough to process Shannon’s rapid-fire words, the brains of people with autism may not generate the high-frequency brain rhythms needed to understand language.
In other words, the over-accelerated babble “may be exactly what a child with autism is hearing during the critical period of language development,” says Welsh, a principal investigator in Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research. And this may explain why some children with autism have trouble learning to speak.
This hypothesis could be a breakthrough in autism research. Though the prevalence of autism has skyrocketed from 1 in 1,000 children 30 years ago to 1 in 110 today, the causes of the condition remain unclear. Doctors are faced with the difficult task of diagnosing and treating only its symptoms, and with varying success.
If autism indeed involves a problem with brain speed, there’s good reason to think that the work being done at Seattle Children’s Research Institute could help improve the prognosis for families struggling with autism.
For years, researchers thought the key to treating autism would be to understand its genetic roots. Key markers were identified with hopes of developing drugs or gene therapies that could short-circuit the condition. But autism’s genetics have turned out to be so complicated that a one-shot genetic treatment doesn’t seem likely. Rather, it appears genetics will play a key role in a broader understanding of autism.
That’s where the research to unravel the connection between autism and brain activity comes in. Scientists have learned that large ensembles of neurons work together to coordinate an organism’s perceptions, thoughts and activities.
It became clear these neurons didn’t act alone. Rather, scientists learned that large ensembles of neurons work together to coordinate an organism’s perceptions, thoughts and activities.
In studying these ensembles in animals, Welsh and others have noticed something striking: the ensembles generate rhythmic signatures. For example, when an animal hears a sound, its brain generates a particular rhythm in response.
As they investigated these rhythms more closely, Welsh and researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia made a breakthrough observation: Children who were struggling to process language weren’t generating the appropriate brain rhythms, perhaps because of an underlying communication problem between brain cells.
“It was probably the most exciting moment in my scientific career because I knew it might provide insights for future therapies,” recalls Welsh, who keeps one eye trained on how his work might translate into treatments that improve children’s lives.
This led to a breakthrough insight: Children who were struggling to process language weren’t generating the appropriate brain rhythms.
A piece in the daunting puzzle of autism
Welsh’s work could play a key role in overcoming the challenges faced every day at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center. The center, formally founded in 2009, brings all the services children with autism need — ranging from psychiatric evaluation to speech therapy — under one roof. This accelerates assessment of the condition and makes it easier to deliver the treatments most likely to improve a child’s quality of life.
While this integrated approach represents important progress, autism still presents daunting puzzles to doctors like Dr. Charles Cowan, a developmental pediatrician who specializes in treating children with this condition. Since autism’s biological mechanisms are not yet understood, Cowan must base his diagnosis on complex symptoms that include problems interacting with other people, preoccupations with repetitive behaviors, and difficulties with talking and communicating.
“Until we have something that can measure autism more precisely, like a blood test, a genetic test or a brain scan, we’re going to be challenged,” Cowan says.
Welsh’s research could help deliver what Cowan needs. Welsh envisions a future where brain scans enable doctors to prescribe cutting-edge drug treatments tailored to the brain rhythm problems of individual children.
His team is now testing compounds meant to enhance the performance of brain cells. The goal is to make those cells communicate better and, in turn, restore brain speed in children with autism. While work on these treatments is already underway, it will likely be years before they are ready for clinical trials.
“It’s extremely exciting,” Welsh says. “Eventually, these treatments could directly address the problem as opposed to just covering the symptoms.”