Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Curious observations about cognitive capability

Based on IQ testing I didn't think my son could successfully hide misuse of a web browser.

Alas, transaction logs show that I thought wrong.

On the one hand, I'll have to deal with this not unexpected problem.

On the other hand, I'm impressed by his powers of deception. I choose to consider that a marker of potential unmeasured by IQ.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Salon – autism is not a disorder

Salon has an article on the autism is not a disorder movement, sometimes called the “neurodiversity” movement. I don’t like to surrender the term neurodiversity, so I’ll call this the “autism is ok” movement.

We’ve been through this sort of thing a few times. Famously, some deaf people resent the use of nerve implants that diminish the appeal of sign language. On another front lesbians and gay men successfully transformed same gender sexual preference from a disease to a trait.

These examples are well known, but there’s a third example that’s been forgotten. In the 1970s it was a fad for a while to consider schizophrenia to be just another worldview; and that the disease was an biased social construction. That idea was, how shall I say, bull poop.

Reality is a lot messier. The term “autism” is an all-but-obsolete category for a wide range of neurologic variations. Many “autistic” persons are absolutely disabled, unable to support themselves in any employment and unable to survive in any world past or present without extensive support. Others are quite successful electrical engineers (sorry, famous example).

I wouldn’t want to render my autistic children “normal”, but I would like to boost one IQ about 50 points and give another child more control over his emotions. The former is unlikely to happen, but we might succeed with the latter. Similarly, we’d like to help another neurotypical child pronounce the “r” sound at the start of words.

In the end, whether you call something a “disorder” or a “trait”, we still try to make life better for the person.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Combined video chat and remote assist for persons with disabilities

This technique may work for a range of persons with varying cognitive and motor disabilities …

Gordon's Tech: Video Chat for elder parents over OS X: Google Video/Gmail, Google Notifier, Firefox and LogMeIn

… I wanted to be able to establish a video chat connection to my elderly parents. Since we both use OS X and both have at least one Intel machine I considered iChat and Google Video Chat. I didn’t consider Skype or Yahoo because that would introduce new account issues and because, as best I can tell, Google has the best technology and no worse reliability than Skype or Yahoo…

Used a combination of remote desktop control and Google video chat.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Autism and savant syndrome

Shortly after reading of an obsessive audiophile savant (definitely spectrum) I came across an Economist article exploring an old theme -- exceptional abilities in atypical minds...

The link between autism and extraordinary ability | Genius locus | The Economist

... A link between artistic genius on the one hand and schizophrenia and manic-depression on the other, is widely debated. However another link, between savant syndrome and autism, is well established...

A study published this week by Patricia Howlin of King’s College, London, reinforces this point. It suggests that as many as 30% of autistic people have some sort of savant-like capability in areas such as calculation or music. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that some of the symptoms associated with autism, including poor communication skills and an obsession with detail, are also exhibited by many creative types, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, music, drawing and painting. Indeed, there is now a cottage industry in re-interpreting the lives of geniuses in the context of suggestions that they might belong, or have belonged, on the “autistic spectrum”, as the range of syndromes that include autistic symptoms is now dubbed...

... A standard diagnosis of autism requires three things to be present in an individual. Two of these three, impairments in social interaction and in communication with other people ... The third criterion, however, is that a person has what are known as restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests, or RRBI, in the jargon.

Until recently, the feeling among many researchers was that the first two features were crucial to someone becoming a savant. The idea was that mental resources which would have been used for interaction and communication could be redeployed to develop expertise in some arbitrary task. Now, though, that consensus is shifting. Several of the volume’s authors argue that it is the third feature, RRBI, that permits people to become savants.

Francesca HappĂ© of King’s College, London, is one of them. As she observes, obsessional interests and repetitive behaviours would allow someone to practice, albeit inadvertently, whichever skill they were obsessed by. Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called “Outliers” which collated research done on outstanding people, suggested that anyone could become an expert in anything by practising for 10,000 hours. It would not be hard for an autistic individual to clock up that level of practice for the sort of skills, such as mathematical puzzles, that many neurotypicals would rapidly give up on.

... Dr Happé has drawn on a study of almost 13,000 individual twins to show that childhood talent in fields such as music and art is often associated with RRBIs, even in those who are not diagnosed as classically autistic. She speculates that the abilities of savants in areas that neurotypicals tend to find pointless or boring may result from an ability to see differences where a neurotypical would see only similarities...

Simon Baron-Cohen, a doyen of the field who works at Cambridge University, draws similar conclusions. He suggests the secret of becoming a savant is “hyper-systematising and hyper-attention to detail”. But he adds sensory hypersensitivity to the list. His team have shown one example of this using what is known as the Freiburg visual acuity and contrast test, which asks people to identify the gap in a letter “c” presented in four different orientations. Those on the autistic spectrum do significantly better at this than do neurotypicals...

... The question of how the autistic brain differs physically from that of neurotypicals was addressed by Manuel Casanova of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. Dr Casanova has spent many years dissecting both. His conclusion is that the main difference is in the structure of the small columns of nerve cells that are packed together to form the cerebral cortex. The cortical columns of those on the autistic spectrum are narrower than those of neurotypicals, and their cells are organised differently.

The upshot of these differences is that the columns in an autistic brain seem to be more connected than normal with their close neighbours, and less connected with their distant ones...

... Dr Snyder argues that savant skills are latent in everyone, but that access to them is inhibited in non-savants by other neurological processes. He is able to remove this inhibition using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Applying a magnetic field to part of the brain disrupts the electrical activity of the nerve cells for a few seconds. Applying such a field repeatedly can have effects that last for an hour or so. The technique has been approved for the treatment of depression, and is being tested against several other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and migraines. Dr Snyder, however, has found that stimulating an area called the left anterior temporal lobe improves people’s ability to draw things like animals and faces from memory. It helps them, too, with other tasks savants do famously well—proofreading, for example, and estimating the number of objects in a large group, such as a pile of match sticks. It also reduces “false” memories (savants tend to remember things literally, rather than constructing a mnemonic narrative and remembering that)...

... Savant syndrome, then, is a case where the politically correct euphemism “differently abled” has real meaning. The conclusion that should be drawn, perhaps, is not that neurotypicals should attempt to ape savants, but that savants—even those who are not geniuses—should be welcomed for what they are, and found a more honoured place in society.

The original article is "young and smart" smarmy, but I've excerpted the worst of the tangents. What's left is a compilation of interesting anecdotes.

I don't believe that 30% of autistic persons have "savant abilities". I suspect the journalist just got this wrong, perhaps the study group was made up of high IQ autistic adults. In that group I can imagine the 30% figure is real.

On the other hand I know a boy with a low IQ who has savant-like abilities to identify persons of interest in very large crowds. I keep trying to come up with a business use of his odd talent, but it sure comes in handy finding his prone-to-wander sibling.

In the end there aren't a lot of practical tips from the article, but it reminds us of the extraordinary diversity of mind concealed by our similar bodies. We're still far from understanding all the variations that shade between disability and selective ability, and how these minds develop from childhood through adulthood.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Schizophrenia and autism: the connectopathies?

For the past few years we've been thinking about developmental disorders of cognition, such as "schizophrenia" and "autism", as being fundamentally wiring disorders.

So very different conditions, but both arising from disordered development of neuronal connectivity.

It's not exactly a new idea. I recall the insult "wired wrong" from 40 years ago. It may turn out to be quite wrong, and it's unlikely to have clinical implications for years, but it's still worth tracking (emphases mine) ...
Finding out how the brain is wired | Wired | The Economist

.... Dr Lichtman’s work is the most famous example of the emerging science of connectomics. But it is not the only one. For, just as every organism has a genome (the complete set of its genes, as encoded in its DNA), every organism with a nervous system has a connectome (the complete set of its nerve cells and the connections between them). In practice, of course, a connectome will change over the course of time as new connections form and old ones die. But that does not stop people like Dr Lichtman dreaming of a Human Connectome Project inspired by the success of the Human Genome Project....

...The cerebral cortex—the part of a mammal’s brain that thinks—is composed of 2mm-long units called cortical columns. Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, estimates that it would take a graduate student (the workhorse of all academic laboratories) about 130,000 years to reconstruct the circuitry of such a column. But efforts to automate the process are gaining ground.

... The result of all this effort, it is hoped, will be precise circuit-diagrams of brains. The first brains to be mapped will probably have belonged to mice. Besides being cheap and disposable, a mouse brain weighs half a gram and packs a mere 16m neurons. Human brains (1.4kg and 100 billion neurons) will come later, when all the wrinkles have been ironed out in rodents, and proper methods devised to analyse the results. But come they will. And when they do, the most complicated object in the known universe will begin to give up the secrets of how it really works.