Autism Biomedical Information Network

Does learning change the brain?

Until the neurobiological basis of autism is defined, a rational, science-based treatment of the core features of the disorder will not be possible. We must first gain a detailed understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying social cognition. There is no easy "bypass" to acquiring this understanding. It will depend on building a knowledge-base, layer by layer, of how the brain "works." This can only come from basic neurocience research. However, there is growing empirical evidence that learning does occur in persons with autism and that such learning must "change the brain." It is possible that learning alters the "connectivity" of different brain modules that must be "wired together" as part of an "integrated circuit." One example of a neurobehavioral integrated circuit is the recognition of an emotional state in facial expressions of other persons and an appropriate act of behavioral self-regulation in response to that emotional state.

The possibility that learning actually "changes the brain" is a central tenet of applied behavior analysis or intensive behavior therapy. There is growing evidence that the process of learning, as a general phenomenon, is capable of remodeling brain circuits.

A recent item in The New York Times by John O'Neil (Science Times, March 21, 2000, p. D8) summarizes research showing that London taxi drivers have an enlarged region of the posterior hippocampus. This region is believed to be associated with "spatial navigation" and is a "memory bank" for the spatial representation of the complex maze of streets in the city of London, England. There is a positive correlation between the number of years on the job and the size of the posterior hippocampal region.

It is evidence such as this that lends support to the concept that the "load" presented by learning a task is able to drive the process of remodeling the brain, even beyond the childhood years.

The original article is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Summary by Ronald J. Kallen, M.D.
This page last updated on 03/25/2000