Using Math to Unlock the Mysteries of Autism

Mar 4, 2014

A Cleveland researcher is trying to unlock the causes of autism … using math. It’s a novel approach to explain why autistic kids struggle with social interaction and communication.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at how this local research points to a possible new way to understand the intense inner world of autism.

 

Mikey Marston is a huge fan of the Cleveland Indians, and this season, he sees them going all the way, winning, "the division, the pennant, and the World Series.” 

Baseball is his favorite topic, and with encyclopedic detail he recalls every game he’s seen, especially when Cleveland beat rival Detroit.

He’s a seventeen year-old high school junior with a B average.  Math is his favorite subject. And Mikey has autism.

Mikey’s dad, Dale Marston, says that while Mikey is in his own world part of the time, "he’s also at the same time seeking out others and looking for commonality," but, "he can’t find it." 

One of the hallmarks of autism is impaired social interaction, and even though Mikey is extremely outgoing, Marston says connections with other people don't come "as readily as you would expect him to considering how bright he is.”

Using math to retrace brain pathways
And that difficulty connecting seen in autism is the subject of a study by Case Western Reserve University neuroscience professor Roberto Fernández Galán.

He says his focus is, "in how the brain works, and how the brain doesn’t work."

Like in a lot of neuroscience research, Galán and his colleagues measured the brain signals of autistic children and compared them to a group of non-autistic kids.

Roberto Fernández Galán is a neuroscience professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. His work combines experimental, theoretical and computational methods to study brain network dynamics.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

But what’s different is what Galán did with the data. He used mathematical tools borrowed from other sciences to analyze those neural signals.

He says the formulae he's using to trace brain signals, "are used to predict the weather, and also to forecast the stock market.”

And what he found was that, even at rest, the brain activity of autistic children is more complex than other kids’.

Galán says the brains of autistic subjects are creating more information at rest, "and we can’t tell you what they are thinking but we suspect that that excessive creation of information correlates with some cognitive processes.”

Intense World Theory
Galán says this fits with a new theory of autism called the Intense World Theory.  It suggests that autism is not caused by a brain deficiency, but by too much brain activity.

Galán says, in the new model of autism, "it's not just a withdrawal into self, it’s that you also have a busier mind and that distracts you from the outside world.”

Lindsay Oberman, head of autism research at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, puts it another way.

She says the neural pathways in the autistic brain are like, "a city with a whole bunch of side streets and no highways."  Brain signals can get from point A to point B, "but it’s going to take you longer and it’s going to be a more complicated route.” 

Oberman says that's why in autistic children the quick processing needed to respond to social cues often gets sidetracked. 

While Oberman thinks it’s always good to bring in new techniques from other fields, she's not convinced Galán's mathematically derived conclusions correlate, "on a behavioral level.”  

As an admittedly skeptical scientist, she’d like to see Galán’s mathematical interpretations backed up by observations of how autistic kids in the study act. 

Autism remains a mystery
Oberman sees promise in the Intense World Theory, but warns scientists are still a long way from understanding the workings of the autistic brain. 

Both Marston boys have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Mikey, on the left has a more pronounced form of autism. His older brother Tony, right, has Asperger's Syndrome. Father Dale takes the family photos.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

  She says there are a lot of theories out there, "but if you ask me how much do we know about autism, I would say very little.”

And while researchers chip away on the science of autism, Mikey Marston and his family take it one day at a time.

Having grown up with the challenges of autism, Mikey says, “I pretty much understand it, I was born with it…”

And he speaks for all us when he says, “No one is perfect.”