The symptoms of autism can improve with proper treatment, but can the autistic brain heal? There is currently no known cure for autism. However, some experts claim that at times individuals previously diagnosed with autism have overcome symptoms to the point that they are no longer autistic. The reasons for these cases of apparent autism recovery are unknown and controversial since there is no scientifically proven autism cure. One theory is brain healing. New research suggests that, in some instances, the brain can heal or rewire itself to recover lost functions. Find out what this discovery may mean for autism.
The Autism Recovery Debate
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, a neurological condition that presents with impairments in language, cognitive, communication and social skills. Since the cause of autism is unknown, the notion of autism recovery is controversial. The fact that autism does not have a known cure is clearly stated by traditional medical organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The definition of autism recovery also has different meanings. To some, recovery means that an autistic person is experiencing an improvement in symptoms as a result of a successful treatment plan. To others, it means that a person no longer exhibits some symptoms of autism.
When a previously diagnosed autistic person improves to a degree that he no longer meets the diagnostic criteria for autism per the DSM IV-TR, experts disagree over the reason for the improvement. Many traditional medical experts claim that the person must have been misdiagnosed. Some experts would credit a successful intervention for the recovery and predict that autism symptoms are likely to reappear if all previous treatment is abandoned. Other experts claim that the person has recovered from autism. Organizations such as Generation Rescue claim that autism can be cured.
The autism recovery debate includes many theories about possible autism causes ranging from genetics and brain abnormalities to environmental toxins and numerous ideas on the most appropriate treatments. Autism brain research suggests that autism may be linked to certain brain abnormalities and impairments.
Autism Brain Research
Autism brain research indicates that autism may be the result of a disorder of the brain's cortex, an area that controls problem-solving, reasoning, memory, sensation and voluntary movement. Research revealed that the autistic brain might have differences in structure, growth and function than the neurotypical (nonautistic) brain such as:
- Structure: The brain structure of people with autism is sometimes different from the neurotypical brain in areas such as the corpus callosum and the amygdala. The middle and back lobes of the corpus callosum are sometimes smaller than average. The amygdala is often larger than typical.
- Function: The autistic brain may function differently than neurotypical brains due to the structural differences and may result in the person with autism thinking, acting and experiencing the world differently that nonautistic people. A 2007 Wake Forest study found that people with autism may have problems with brain cell connections in left hemisphere of the brain.
- Growth: Some children with autism experience faster brain growth than average by 12 months, which can lead to language and cognitive skill problems. A 2006 University of Washington study on the transverse relaxation of cortical gray and white matter in the brain discovered that there were differences in gray matter cellular structure in children with autism, which may explain enlarged brain size.
Impairments of the brain in the areas that affect cognitive thinking, language ability, communication and social interaction are a part of autism. Autism research suggests that the impairments may be a part of a possible autism cause. Whether brain impairments are the cause or result of autism is still unknown. Whatever the answer, a discovery that the brain can recover lost function is important to developing possible autism treatments.
Brain Healing Research
The medical community has long believed that severe brain damage that involves brain cell death is irreversible. Recent brain research has discovered that while the damaged areas of the brain remain injured, the brain is capable of rewiring itself to take over some of the functions normally controlled by the damaged area. The reason for this is unknown but may be related to the plasticity of the brain (neuroplasticity), which allows the brain to reorganize neural pathways or function through mental experiences. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to change based on learning new things.
An October 12, 2009 CNN news story about brain healing featured the case of a woman named Michelle Mack, who never received a specific diagnosis, but exhibited autistic-type symptoms such as behavioral and communication problems. She also had a savant talent for numbers and date recall. A brain scan revealed the 95% of the left hemisphere of her brain was dead due to an in utero stroke and that her right hemisphere had taken over functions normally handled by the left such as speaking and reading.
CNN also interviewed Dr. Norman Doidge, author of the book, The Brain That Changes itself about brain healing and Mack's recovery. Doidge studied a number of cases of patients with brain damage who were able to recover brain function. He describes the research, brain recovery cases as well as how people can find ways to overcome brain damage. Dr. Doidge commented that Mack's recovery was an example of the brain's ability to rewire or heal itself to compensate for injury.
Can the Autistic Brain Heal?
Can the autistic brain heal? People with autism can certainly experience significant improvement in symptoms with the right treatment plan. The reasons for the improvements are not yet fully understood but may include a change in how the brain functions in impaired areas. More research is necessary to find out if the autistic brain can heal itself to compensate for impairments. The recent research on brain damage recovery is encouraging for autism because it may lead to more information on the cause of autism and possible effective treatments.