The Ballooning Brain review

In this fascinating article, author Ferris Jabr provides a theory of autism that is wholly consonant with the larger theory of brain-consciousness established by Gerald Edelman. Jabr eloquently summarizes the work of Eric Courchesne, which theorizes atypical gene expression causing excessive early growth in the autistic brain. There has since been further evidence to corroborate this theory.

When I first read this article, I was completely gobsmacked. This was at the height of all that now thoroughly discredited nonsense about vaccinations causing autism. (A "theory" so completely lacking in scientific merit that I refuse to link to any of the copious volumes of countermanding evidence. Seriously, Just Freaking Google It (JFGI (TM)).) What stunned me was how neatly it dovetailed with Edelman's theories. Below I shall summarize what I thought were the key points of congruence at the time.

First and foremost, it is a developmental theory. Edelman's theory begins with a notion he calls "topobiology," the beginning of Neural Darwinism. This describes how a 1-dimensional gene code finds expression in a 3-dimensional morphology of animal form. The short story would be that this theory puts the old "3 most important things in real estate" punchline into a molecular biology context: location, location, location.

Second, it touches on one of the fundamental principles of neuroscience in what Edelman calls the establishment of the "primary repertoire": cell growth, migration and death. (The primary repertoire is neuroanatomy, like the arterial shapes of any modern civilization's road systems; the secondary repertoire is neurophysiology, like the moment-by-moment traffic patterns upon those roads.) This part of Edelman's theory is fully corroborated by what I consider the master reference work, Principles of Neural Science, by Kandel, Schwartz, Jessell. Pertinent line from the article which connects to both: "Additionally, all autistic brains demonstrated unusual activity levels for genes that determine when neurons grow and die and how newborn neurons migrate during early development."

Lastly, the thing which perhaps hit me the hardest, was this theory not only fit in with the neuroscience of the situation (a sine qua non of any scientific explanation, IMHO) but it also connects with what I consider to be one of the hallmarks of what it feels like to be inside of an autistic brain: our nervous systems are tuned more to listen to themselves than to the outside world, in sharp contradiction to more social, neurotypical brains. Some explanation of this last point is in order.

Toward that end, it would help if you were autistic. (Little joke.) But if you are not inside of an autistic brain, you can hardly do better than to check out the wonder-filled and awe-inspiring "The Reason I Jump" by Naoki Higashida. There's a whole spectrum of autism, and even wildly-varying experiences by individuals who are more or less on the same end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, we all share certain commonalities. Almost all individuals on the spectrum have some form of sensory integration disorder. We almost all have normal (or even above normal) fine-motor skills, but none of us are athletes: our gross motor skills are pretty much out of whack. This theory, of early neuronal development run amok, provides a marvelous explanatory framework in which a premature flourishing of inter-neurons (before a sufficiently-developed context of sensory and motor neurons) become wired to pay attention more to themselves than to the outside world.

Just a quick brain-dump of this article which really stayed with me over the last few years, but I very much wanted to get down some notes on a subject dear to my heart in order to properly re-christen my blog.