Notes on Autism
Quantitative Electroencephalogram (QEEG) Findings & Neurofeedback Training
Lynda Thompson, Ph.D.
ADD Centre, Biofeedback Institute of Toronto
In the recent research literature on autistic spectrum disorders, five areas of the brain are repeatedly found to differ when compared to people with normal development. Most of these areas are connected to what is called the mirror-neuron system. Mirror neurons are groups of neurons that fire when a person is watching and mentally mirroring the actions of another person. Young children learn to mirror and reflect the behaviour and feelings of others, starting with their mother. Think of how intently a baby watches its mother’s face. This mirroring system is crucial for the young child in order to understand the intentions and meanings of other people, as expressed through nonverbal communication. In children with autism, this mirror neuron system is not functioning normally (See “Broken Mirrors” in Scientific American, by V. S. Ramachandran & L. M. Oberman, 2006).
What is now of great interest is that the lack of normal functioning in these critical areas of the brain can be easily seen using a completely side-effect free and non-invasive procedure called an electroencephalogram or EEG. The child sits wearing a cap that has built-in sensors that pick up electrical activity from the brain and the EEG is recorded. Later it can be analyzed and one can see what differs in that child’s patterns in terms of over-activation (or lack of activation) at various sites on the scalp and it is also possible to see if communication between different areas of the cortex is disrupted (coherence between two sites that is either too high or two low).
Six main areas of dysfunction in Autism that can be seen using the EEG are: (1)Amygdala with connections to the Orbital and Medial Frontal areas of the brain, (2) the Fusiform gyrus,(3) Superior Temporal Gyrus with the auditory cortex in the Temporal lobe, (4) the anterior Insula and the Anterior Cingulate (both part of the limbic system (the emotional brain), (5) frontal and parietal-temporal Mirror Neuron areas, and (6) the prefrontal cortex .
What is of even more interest is that, once irregularities in functioning are identified, the child can do training using a brain-computer interface that seeks to normalize the brain wave patterns. The child watches a game-like display that only moves when they produce the correct patterns. With enough practice, the brain learns these healthy patterns and, as the new, more normal patterns become established the child’s behaviour also changes.
One of the pictures that can be generated from the EEG assessment is called a ‘brain map’ and it may look like the following. This was a nine-year-old boy diagnosed as autistic. His language development was at a three-year-old’s level and he made little eye contact. He would draw a stick figure if requested, but preferred to draw a repeating pattern he called a train.