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Mind mapper

Fusing brain-and-behavior models to unlock the causes of autism

One child just repeats a word or phrase instead of answering a question. Another throws tantrums for no apparent reason. Still another says hardly anything at all. All of these behaviors could be symptoms of autism, a brain disorder usually appearing by age three that disrupts the social and communication skills of about 1.5 million Americans.

According to the Autism Society of America, the prevalence of the disorder is growing by 10 to 17 percent a year, and the variety of its symptoms makes the brain mechanisms that cause them extremely difficult to untangle. But now a new model of brain function developed by Stephen Grossberg, Wang Professor of Cognitive and Neural Systems and chairman of Boston University’s department of cognitive and neural systems, could help guide research into autism’s causes and treatment.  

“You can’t attack something like autism directly,” says Grossberg. The key, he says, is to begin with a model of normal human learning and behavior, to match the firing of millions of nerve cells in different areas of the brain with learning, emotion, and communication, and to see how those mental systems break down in people with autism.

“Understanding a mental disorder includes understanding how it disorders normal behavior,” he says. The new model, developed by Grossberg and Don Seidman, a pediatrician with the DuPage Medical Group in Elmhurst, Ill., is called iSTART (Imbalanced Spectrally Timed Adaptive Resonance Theory). They describe the model in their article “Neural Dynamics of Autistic Behaviors: Cognitive, Emotional, and Timing Substrates,” in the July issue of Psychological Review, published by the American Psychological Association.

BU Today spoke with Grossberg about the iSTART model and about what it could mean for the future of autism research and treatment. To listen to the interview, click here.

A link to the full text of the Psychological Review paper can be found here.