How cartoons helped us find out more about the autism brain
The purpose of this paper is whether the fusiform gyrus (FG) and amygdala, brain structures that specialize in facial recognition and emotion, can be functionally active in individuals with autism. The hypothesis that the FG and amygdala of individuals with autism might respond to their circumscribed interests despite the lack of activation of faces was tested with a boy with autism very interested in Digimon (DD). Control participants were a developmentally normal boy (TCD) and a boy with autism without a special interest in Digimon (CC). It was found that the FG and amygdala activated in DD when he saw Digimon, but not faces. DD’s amygdala showed habituation to Digimon the same way TDC’s while CC and DD had similar levels of activation of brain structures when it came to objects and faces.
Although the results of each participant were not novel, the experimental control and comparison of Digimon activated activity are informative of key mechanisms underlying the development of social deficits in autism. Grelotti’s data suggests that the FG and amygdala of people with autism can function normally under certain conditions. Practical uses of this information could be to train kids with autism to be responsive and emotionally welcoming of faces to influence a more normative development.
It was helpful that the “discussion” divided the fusiform gyrus and amygdala analysis since they have distinct yet interconnected functions. The neurobiological response of DD to Digimon is presented in a concise and specific way which was effective in highlighting results in both brain structures. Along with zooming in on neuroimaging technique and results, Grelotti and his colleagues also described the social influences that most likely affected the results. This is important since developmental deficits in autism seem to be related to social impairments at the core of autism (Klin et. al., 1999). It has been established that neurons of the amygdala in persons with autism are more small and densely packed than normal due to stunted arborization (Bauman, 1996). Results from this paper allow us to see that even if the Bauman study is true, there is hope that individuals with autism can have well-functioning emotions and recognition if they receive proper behavioral guidance and stimuli.
As an observational study, there are many limitations. First of all, there was only one participant of interest since “we found no other Digimon enthusiasts and no children other than TDC who knew the names of eight recurring Digimon.” In a disorder that is so variable in expression and behavior, one case study is not fully convincing. The controls on DD were not ideal since TDC and CC were both of different ages and IQs. In the machinery itself, the MRI procedure rendered some amygdala data to be lost due to volume averaging and loss of scanner signal. Additionally, due to the nature of children with autism, parts of MRI images were discarded due to excessive motion of DD. Although some of these weaknesses are common amongst experimental research on autism, it creates a greater margin of error within the results.
Future directions should involve seeing whether non-face-like circumscribed interests have the same effect on the FG and amygdala. Since Digimon have faces, the results of this study may not have a similar replication to a person with ASD who is into trains, for example. Similarly, a longitudinal study could be conducted on whether a child who eventually was diagnosed with autism will have significant improvement in facial recognition if they were received the behavioral intervention at an early age.
Klin, A., Sparrow, S. S., de Bildt, A., Cicchetti, D. V., Cohen, D. J.,& Volkmar, F. R.
(1999). A normed study of face recognition in autism and related disorders. Journal of
Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 29, pp 499–508.
Bauman, M. L. (1996). Brief report: Neuroanatomic observations of the brain in pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 26, pp 199–203.