I am writing this from Alice Springs, where I work once every 2 months. Expect a column on Indigenous mental Health soon.
But I promised to tell you about December’s amazing Neurosciences Conference at the UQ Brain Institute. There were 250 participants. The demographics were as wonderful as the findings. Most of the researchers were Gen Y’s, 30 or under !!!! with a few 40 year olds, and about 6 older codgers of my vintage. No medical doctors or psychiatrists, apart from myself and another man, and he was from the US. And the major theme was how the brain does empathy, mindfulness, and nurturance, and judging by how caringly and warmly participants interacted with each other, they were “walking the walk”, as well as “talking the talk” of nurturance….very reassuring to learn this about our youngest generation of neuroscientists.
My psychiatrist colleague Dr Kevin Pelphrey, from YaleUniversityChildStudyCenter, specialises in research in Autism and Aspergers in children. As we know, they struggle to read what goes on in others (facial expression, eye movements, body language). Although “Autism Spectrum Disorders” have a genetic component, the environment, and its impact at various stages in a child’s development, have a powerful effect. Kevin and his team are interested in finding out what goes on in the developing brain, and have been using Functional Magnetic Resonance, a technique which show which parts of the brain light up (or don’t) when the subject has certain kinds of experiences (like engaging in a range of social perception process, in the case of our autistic kids). And because some of their Mirror neurone sites do not light up properly, it is important to find out how they activate a range of brain processes, so that we can find ways to help them develop the circuitry that underlies social perception skills.
They showed us some delightful modifications to the FMRI machines to make them much more “infant-friendly”. They have also started to give the kids sniffs of oxytocin (the “bonding” hormone) during therapy, with strong facilitation effects (showing up in FMRI findings as well as clinical improvement).
Currently. diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder is made on the basis of clinical findings, but specific brain patterns are emerging in FMRI studies making it possible to use this to provide more objectivity.
FMRI machines are cumbersome and expensive, but Qualitative Electro Encephalography (QEEG) is office-based and inexpensive.
The Solstices Clinic at Tweed offers QEEG tests and treatment for autism. I will be featuring their work soon.