Asperger syndrome and neuroscience
Asperger syndrome (AS) is a neurodevelopmental condition. Asperger syndrome, along with other autism spectrum disorders (ASD), is an active field of research. From a biological perspective, it is unclear whether "autism and Asperger's disorder (AD) exist on a symptom continuum or are separate disorders with discrete neurobiological underpinnings."
- 1 Early research
- 2 Behavioral and cognitive descriptions
- 3 Clinical descriptions
- 4 Neuroanatomical
- 5 Neurological systems
- 6 Biochemical systems
- 7 Biomarkers implicated in Asperger syndrome
- 8 Genes implicated in Asperger syndrome
- 9 Asperger syndrome versus High Functioning Autism
- 10 Theoretical frameworks
- 11 References
Behavioral and cognitive descriptions
- Early onset language, high language skills
- Normal or above average VIQ, PIQ < VIQ
- Intense narrow interest
- "little professors"
Hans Asperger coined the phrase "little professors" because of their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail. Asperger noticed that many of the children he identified as being autistic used their special talents in adulthood and had successful careers. One of them became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work he had originally noticed as a student. Another one of Asperger's patients was the Austrian writer and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Elfriede Jelinek.
- Learning, memory, and savantism
- Social criteria
- Eye contact / gaze avoidance
- Face processing
- Repetitive behavior
- Resistance to change
- Motor coordination and motor planning
Asperger was the director of the University Children's Clinic in Vienna. In 1944, Asperger described in the paper "'Autistic psychopathy' in childhood" four children in his practice who had difficulty in integrating themselves socially. Although their intelligence appeared normal, the children lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy. Their speaking was either disjointed or overly formal, and their all-absorbing interest in a single topic dominated their conversations. Asperger called the condition "autistic psychopathy" and described it as primarily marked by social isolation. Asperger called his young patients "little professors".
Lorna Wing is the author of many books and academic papers, including Asperger's Syndrome: a Clinical Account, a 1981 academic paper that popularised the research of Hans Asperger and introduced the term "Asperger's syndrome".
The diagnosis of AS is complicated by the use of several different screening instruments. In addition to the DSM-IV and the ICD-10 criteria, other sets of diagnostic criteria for AS are the Szatmari et al. criteria and the Gillberg and Gillberg criteria.
MRI Comparison of Asperger and High Functioning Autism revealed the HFA group had the atypical pattern of decreasing Performance IQ linked to increasing gray matter. In contrast, subjects with Asperger showed the typical pattern of increasing PIQ associated with increasing gray matter volume. The study also observed a correlation between PIQ and cerebral white tissue volume in the Aspergers that was significantly different from the HFA and control groups.
A 2011 meta-analysis compared the grey matter volume of AS subjects to HFA subjects. Autism showed lower volumes in the cerebellum, right uncus, dorsal hippocampus and middle temporal gyrus compared with controls; grey matter volumes were greater in the bilateral caudate, prefrontal lobe and ventral temporal lobe.
Asperger syndrome showed "lower grey matter volumes in the bilateral amygdala/hippocampal gyrus and prefrontal lobe, left occipital gyrus, right cerebellum, putamen and precuneus compared with controls; grey matter volumes were greater in more limited regions, including the bilateral inferior parietal lobule and the left fusiform gyrus." Aspergers and autism both showed increases in the ventral temporal lobe of the left hemisphere.
Austism Spectrum Disorders "showed robust reductions of gray matter volume in the amygdala-hippocampus complex (particularly on the right side) and medial parietal regions (precuneus, BA7). A small increase in gray matter volume was found in the left middle and inferior frontal gyri (BA46 and BA10)."
The amygdala perform a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions, the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system. The amygdala is associated with fear processing and social interaction.
A MRI study found subjects with Asperger syndrome had significant differences in both the size and the aging of the amygdala.
A study found abnormal fear acquisition in subjects with Asperger syndrome.
- Facial image processing
- Multiple studies have confirmed a high prevalence of sleep disorders in subjects with Asperger syndrome. Insomnia is a frequent finding in that population. The studies have shown subjects with Asperger syndrome exhibit an increased prevalence of disorders in initiating and maintaining sleep (both in children and adults).
- Subjects with autism have significantly lower levels of melatonin and ASMT.
- Heart-rate and EEG measures show children with Asperger Syndrome react more strongly to stressful stimuli.
Gaze and eye movements
- A study reported subjects with Aspergers showed more theta rhythms, "and they were not localized in the AS group". The authors reported "The buildup of slow waves in response to hyperventilation tended to appear earlier in the AS group and a big buildup appeared in only the AS group." According to the authors, the "findings regarding slow wave buildup suggested hypersensitivity to hypocapnea induced by hyperventilation".
- Sex hormone systems
- Neuronal growth systems
- Neurotrophins like BDNF are elevated in blood of children with autism and "may be associated with early brain overgrowth".
- Social-emotional systems
- Subjects with AS had significantly higher plasma-ACTH values
- Absence of cortisol awakening response in subjects with Asperger syndrome (HPA dysregulation).
- Genes involved in cortisol synthesis implicated in Asperger syndrome. "CYP1A1, CYP1B1, CYP3A, CYP7A1, CYP11A, CYP11B1, CYP17A1, CYP19A1, CYP21A2, POR; Synthesis of sex hormones such as progesterone, estrogen, cortisol, aldosterone and testosterone."
- Atopy increased in subjects with AS.
Biomarkers implicated in Asperger syndrome
- Cytokines are small proteins that can influence the behavior of white blood cells.
- Interleukins are a group of cytokines secreted by white blood cells (leukocytes).
- Tissue factor (TF) is related to a protein family known as the cytokine receptor class II family. The members of this receptor family are activated by cytokines.
- Tenascin-C is the founding member of the Tenascin gene family. In the embryo it is made by migrating cells like the neural crest; it is also abundant in developing tendons, bone and cartilage.
Genes implicated in Asperger syndrome
Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis, genetic screens, and other methods have implicated several specific genes:
- HOXA1 (Homeobox protein Hox-A1) is a Hox gene, involved in neural development. A common polymorphism in the HOXA1 gene is associated with a susceptibility to autism spectrum disorder.
- NTRK1 (Neurotrophic tyrosine kinase receptor type 1) encodes a receptor that binds to neurotrophins. The presence of this kinase leads to cell differentiation and may play a role in specifying sensory neuron subtypes. Mutations in the NTRK1 gene have been associated with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis and self-mutilating behavior. Mice without NTKR1 showed "severe sensory and sympathetic neuropathy, especially for nociceptive neurons".
- NLGN3 and NLGN4X. Neuroligins are believed to be involved in synapse formation.
- NRXN1, CNTNAP2, and SHANK3. SHANK3 "regulates the structural organization of dendritic spines". SHANK3 binds with neuroligins. Mutations SHANK3 are associated are associated with ASD.
- BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is associated with neuroplasticity. Various studies have shown possible links between BDNF and conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, Rett syndrome, and dementia, as well as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. BDNF has been associated with Asperger syndrome and autism.
- ESR1 and ESR2 (Estrogen Receptors α and β) encode estrogen receptor proteins.
- CYP11B1 encodes Steroid 11-beta-hydroxylase, which is involved in the biosynthesis of both cortisol and corticosterone. (see also Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 11β-hydroxylase deficiency )
- MAOB (Monoamine Oxidase B) associated with mood and anxiety.
- AVPR1B encodes a vasopressin receptor located in the anterior pituitary, where it stimulates ACTH release. Subsequent studies have shown that it is also present in the brain.
- GABRB3 encodes a GABA receptor subunit. Deletion has been associated with Angelman Syndrome (hyper-socialization). A specific polymorphism in the gene is reported to distinguish Asperger Syndrome from High Functioning Autism.GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the human brain. Ma et al. (2005) concluded that GABRA4 is involved in the etiology of autism, and that it potentially increases autism risk through interaction with GABRB1. The GABRB3 gene has been associated with savant skills. The GABRB3 gene deficient mouse has been proposed as a model of ASD.
- WFS1 encodes the protein wolframin. Mutations in WFS1 are associated with the neurodegenerative Wolfram syndrome. WFS1 polymorphisms have been associated with affective disorders. WFS1 has been implicated in anxiety.
- OXT encodes Oxytocin. OXTR encodes an Oxytocin receptor. Oxytocin infusion reduced repetitive behaviors in subjects with Asperger syndrome. Oxytocin nasal spray trial
- PRL (Prolactin), PRLR (Prolactin receptor) implicated in ASD.
- DISC1 (Disrupted in schizophrenia 1) is a gene that has been linked to various psychiatric conditions, including clinical depression, bipolar disorder, Autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Asperger syndrome versus High Functioning Autism
The precise relationship between Asperger syndrome and autism is unclear.
- Subjects with HFA displayed deficits in attentional set-shifting, i.e. the ability to display flexibility in the face of changing schedules of reinforcement. Subjects with AS did not display the set-shifting deficits.<
- Relatives of subjects with AS were significantly more likely to have depression, schizophrenia, or the broader autistic phenotype (compared to relatives of subjects with HFA).
- Examination of mothers of children with Asperger or autism, mothers with a history of mood disorders are more likely to have a child with Asperger syndrome phenotype than the Autism phenotype.
- A meta-analysis found that while autism is characterized by increased gray matter volume in both hemispheres of the brain, but in contrast, Asperger syndrome showed decreased gray matter volume in the right hemisphere and increased in the left hemisphere.
- On an inspection time test, mean inspection time was shorter for the autistic subgroup (but not the Asperger subgroup).
- A study was able to discriminate between individuals suffering from Asperger’s syndrome and autistics by their ability to solve Theory of mind tasks.
- Subjects with AS showed the typical pattern of increased gray matter being associated with increased Performance IQ. In contrast, subjects with HFA have the opposite pattern—increased gray matter being associated with decreased PIQ.
Asperger syndrome as an autistic spectrum disorder
Increasing consensus has classed Asperger syndrome as a subtype of autism spectrum disorders. In this framework, Asperger syndrome is distinguished from "classic" high functioning autism primarily by a lack of language or cognitive deficits.
Intense World Theory
The Intense World Theory seeks to explain autism's "core cognitive consequences of hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality." According to the Intense World Theory, individuals with autism-spectrum disorders are "hypersensitive" to the world around them. Accord to the theory, the pathology in autism may be hyper-functioning of local neural microcircuits. It's argued that local neural microcircuits in individuals with autism possess both "hyper-reactivity" and "hyper-plasticity".
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Deficit in empathy / theory of mind
- "Children with AS did not refer to cognitive states as often as the other groups" in narrative testing.
"Extreme Male Brain"
Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has proposed that the Aspergers/Autism represents an "extreme male brain". The hypothesis is supported by the increased prevalence of the conditions in males relative to females. Additional evidence comes from studies of gender dsyphoria -- a study found female-to-male (FTM) transgender people have higher rates of autistic traits copared to male-to-female (MTF) transgender people or non-transexuals. 
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Refrigerator mother refers to a rejected hypothesis that autism was caused by maternal emotional frigidity. A modern understanding of genetics has led to a rejection of this theory of causation. Similarly, a hypothetical causal connection between MMR vaccine and autism has been rejected.
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