The study conducted by the Monash University in Melbourne Australia involved boosting brain waves in the frontal cortex using rTMS, or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Strong magnetic pulses were passed to the frontal cortex of the recipients brains. This part of the brain is proven to be under active in people with autism and ASDs.
Recepients received treatments for up to ten minutes per day over a period of ten days. The team carried out a randomised, double-blind clinical trial – the first of its kind – involving 28 adults diagnosed with either high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
Participants also carried out a number of social interaction tests through out the trial, which is the first of it’s kind. Lead researcher Peter Enticott and his team compared the results to a placebo group who did not receive the rTMS.
The participants carried out a number of tests of their social skills before the start of the therapy and at the end of the therapy. These showed that those who received rTMS had significantly improved social skills a month later. For instance, one woman began making tea for her sibling who was studying for an exam, suggesting that she understood her sibling’s emotional state and wanted to help.
Dr Enticott said:
“As far as her family were concerned, this was completely foreign to her. She had never shown any inclination toward that sort of activity in her life.”
Although marked increase was observed in the social interaction area, no improvement was demonstrated on the computer tests designed for inferring the mental state of other people.
Dr Enicott said:
“It surprises me. We are stimulating the region of the brain that is most closely associated with these tasks.Given this, it is unclear why the volunteers showed an improvement in social skills. We need to figure out whether this is underpinned by changes to ‘mentalising’ ability, or whether there is some other thing at play.”
While the frontal cortex of the brain is stimulated, the area responsible for ‘mentalisation’ is tucked deeper into the brain than could be accessible by the bursts of magnetic activity.
“While the findings are interesting, the research is still in its very early stages”
cautions Carol Povey, at the UK’s National Autistic Society. She adds that it is essential that people with autism receive the support they need to reach their full potential.