Issue #69

Last Update October 31, 2010

Technology  Homo Sapiens 2.0 by David Katz February 10, 2009   The September 20-26,2008 issue of New Scientist, the British science weekly, contained an interesting article on autism, based on work done on rats exposed to valproic acid, an anticonvulsant and mood-stabilizing drug, in utero. The rats given the drug on the 12th day of gestation, roughly equivalent to early part of the first trimester in humans, then developed a condition closely analogous to autism in humans, providing an animal model of the human syndrome. The experimenters (Kamila and Henry Markham of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) postulate that the spectrum of symptoms that comprise autism in young children is the result of physical changes in the brain, specifically abnormal brain growth after birth, especially in minicolumns in the cerebral cortex. In addition to being more plentiful, these mincolumns are hyperconnected; that is, there are many more signal paths between them, and are also more reactive, firing more readily in the presence of an external electrical current. The minicolumns, according to the article, are the smallest independent processing units in the cortex, handling perception, memory and other things before they are integrated into a whole.

The effect of these changes is to give the infant a higher than normal capacity for handling information, and cause the infant to be bombarded with stimuli that it is unable to handle: lights and sounds are overwhelming, and the other senses are affected as well. The difficulty of integrating these stimuli leads to high fragmented perception. The result is a  withdrawal by the infant from contact with these stimuli. In addition, if similar changes are occurring in the amygdala, it would account for the expanded fear response. In the rat model, the affected rats learn to avoid frightening situations more quickly, easily display fear in safe situations, and generalize fear from one situation to another, while having difficulty in learning when a once-frightening situation becomes safe. Depending on when in human fetal development the damage is done, the effect on infants may be more or less profound, accounting for the gamut of symptoms from severely disabled to high functioning or Asbergers Syndrome.

However, the same structural changes provide the affected child with sharper perception, better concentration, better memory, and faster learning in certain areas. Rigidity of response associated with fear, and a desire to avoid over-intense stimuli, however, make these positive traits generally harmful, with avoidance, narrow focus and repetitive behaviors causing the child to behave abnormally in human society. Some treatments based on restricting stimuli in the first few months of the child's life have shown some promise.

Nature, in its blind way, is constantly changing the organisms it has created. Most of the time, in a given environment, these changes are harmful, and die out. Sometimes these changes are harmful in the normal environment, but beneficial under special conditions (such as the sickle cell trait which is harmful when dominant, but conveys malaria resistance when recessive) and thus persist in the human population at reduced levels, waiting for their chance to be useful. Sometimes two or more otherwise harmful changes occur at the same time and interact positively, repurposing a body system to a different use, or providing a new capability that fits some new set of conditions. The brain changes that generate the autism spectrum look like the first steps toward Homo Sapiens 2.0; us with better memory, improved concentration, faster thought connections and hightened senses. All that's missing is the control mechanism that will prevent the newborn from being overwhelmed by the cacophony of the world it finds itself in until it can deal effectively with the products of its own brain. When that happens, we will have a race of geniuses, and Homo Sap 1.0 will be obsoleted by its own children.

New Scientist, September 2-26, 2008. Pp 34-37. "Welcome to my world" by Maia Szalavitz

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