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A researcher's perspective

Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge as well as the vice president of the National Autistic Society. His outstanding contributions to autism research and education have been invaluable in changing the way we see autism spectrum disorders in terms of teaching, researching and the public perception.

When did you become interested in Autism Research and has it become easier since then?

After my undergraduate degree, knowing little about autism, I took a job as a teacher at a small school for children with autism and in a way it served as field work: lots of observation without any hypothesis at all. But I was interested in what lies behind autism, rather than just the educational front.

While funding is still an obstacle research is a lot easier nowadays. We no longer have to argue that autism is an important topic for research and in terms of acceptability it’s no longer a quirky subject. I actually see science getting easier in many ways as places become more multi-disciplinary and scientists in very different fields are more open to collaboration. And without sounding too utilitarian, autism research could be a tool to understanding the rest of us as well as understanding the condition itself.

Can you tell us how the ARC got started and the main goals of the centre?

It started within the department of Experimental Psychology here in Cambridge, which reflects my own background. However if we are ever going to arrive at a comprehensive explanation we need to integrate between different levels - behavioural, neural, endocrine, genetic – so the obvious base for the ARC was to also become part of the Clinical School, hence being located within the department of Psychiatry. And that is our overall goal at ARC, to see how these different levels tie up.

The clinic attached to the ARC recruits volunteers. Do you find people are responsive?

Often parents want to help, even though they know that the research we do will not be yielding a solution within their child’s lifetime. Science works slowly, but they are happy to help the international effort. And many individuals with Asperger Syndrome [AS] who come through our clinic also want to contribute. On top of this, it is great that the UK is putting a big drive into brain banks for autism. If the decision to donate is made whilst the person is still alive you can conduct tests and get the history and confirm if there is a single or dual diagnosis. Once collected we can perform volumetric or gene expression tests on the brain itself, which we always try and relate back to the behaviour.

What are the differences between high functioning autism [HFA] and AS? There seems to be a lot of overlap.

They both have IQ in or above the normal range and the key distinction is at what age the child starts talking. To end up with a diagnosis of HFA the child would have had a late onset of speech [typical development is single words by age 2 years]. Children with AS however begin talking on time. Interestingly, we often find they start talking even earlier than average, and arrive in primary school already able to read (so-called hyperlexia), which becomes another puzzle.

You published the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory as a model for the autistic brain. Did you find it challenging in terms of public opinions on sex differences?

There was a time when the study of sex differences was too politically sensitive and could be used to reinforce very traditional views about men and women. Nowadays I think there is more of an open mindedness in terms of sex-linked factors in biology and even in psychology.

Most recently you have investigated the correlation between foetal testosterone [fT] and social and language development. Can you summarise your findings?

By measuring the hormone in amniotic fluid we have found that the higher your fT, the less eye contact you make at 12months old, and the slower your language development at 18 and 24 months old. Now these children are 8 years old if we look at the ability to empathise and systemise we find that the higher your fT the more difficulties you have with empathy but the stronger your interests are in systemising.

Does this kind of research provide evidence for the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism?

The fT theory and the EMB theory are currently independent. The EMB started as a psychological theory and biologically we can’t really conclude anything about autism per se at the hormonal level yet, so cannot make that connection. This is because we only had 500 amniotic samples. Given that the rate of autism in the general population is 1% this means that potentially there are 5 children in our sample who may go on to have a diagnosis, which is far too few scientifically. So our current work on fT can only tell us about the typical developing brain. However, we are collaborating with the Danish bio-bank who have 70, 000 samples. We hope to have an answer about the link between autism and fT in 2010.

Would you like to comment on how your work on fT was misinterpreted in the press?

We published a paper on autistic traits in typically developing children where we had the fT data. This was plastered all over the front page of the Guardian as “a new prenatal test for autism”. That was the press getting it awfully wrong. I had my illusions of good scientific journalism slightly shattered by that experience.

Is fT the only hormone you plan to investigate?

We think of autism as multi-factorial and we are following one factor [fT] just to see if it’s a fruitful avenue. For example, fT is thought to have an organisational role in brain development, so if we did find a direct link between autism and fT we would want to know about the cellular mechanisms – exactly where and how it can change brain development. But at the biological level we know there are lots of other pathways implicated in autism, and there is a whole panel of sex steroid hormones to be looked at.

What is your opinion on the sometimes misleading association of Savantism and Autism?

Savantism is more associated with classic autism than any other neurodevelopmental condition. Some people with autism and their families get a bit frustrated that this link is highlighted by the media because there is a disproportionate focus on this talented minority. However you can find some examples of savantism that are universal in autism, such as hyper-attention to detail.

You are currently researching hyper-attention to detail in autism. How do you feel this can be useful?

At the neuronal level hyper-attention to detail shows that the brain is working differently. There are studies showing that the autistic brain contains more neurons in certain regions, so at a simple level, you might hypothesise that the more neurons you have the more sensory information you can detect, and this may impact on talent.

A company in Denmark specifically employs autistic adults for their unique ability to systemise. What do you think about this?

I have mixed opinions, as it sets up this model of separatism. However it’s great they are using positive discrimination towards people with AS or autism because according to the National Autistic Society 90% of adults with AS are unemployed.

What are your future plans?

In terms of future plans I think genetics is getting even more exciting in autism, and so we are going to concentrate more in that area, designing studies where you can look at gene-brain-psychology interactions. Last time I looked there were 144 genes associated with autism or AS, so that will keep us busy.


Ali Dun and Ruth Milne are PhD students in the Centre for Integrative Physiology


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