Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Fascinating Meeting With a Neuroscientist

I recently met with a prominent local neuroscientist to discuss with him whether I could be a research subject and perhaps receive help for my learning difficulties. The website of the institute where he works says this about him:

[He] is a pediatric cognitive neuroscientist. His research focuses on the neural basis of cognitive impairments seen in genetic disorders that produce mental retardation, developmental disability and psychopathology. Building on his influential theory of the foundations of numerical competence, [he] investigates how dysfunction in specific neurocognitive processing systems, such as attention and spatial cognition, can generate a range of cognitive and behavioral impairments. His goal is to develop remedial intervention programs that will minimize such disability. [His] current projects center on studies of visuospatial and numerical cognition in children with chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge and VeloCardioFacial syndrome. He is also engaged in similar studies of children with Fragile X, Williams, and Turner syndromes. Besides cognitive processing analyses and psychometric testing, [he] uses cutting edge neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Voxel Based Morphometrics, and Diffusion Tensor Fiber Tracking in order to study the structure, function and connective patterns in the developing brain.

This sounds pertinent to my situation and impressive, and I found the man it describes to be extremely impressive in person. This is one brilliant and tremendously knowledgeable guy! We talked for over an hour. Actually, he did most of the talking and I listened with utter fascination. I don't claim to have understood most of what he said, but here is the essence of what I think I understood:

He works mostly with children but has been approached recently by several adults close to the same age from different parts of the country. We all report similar symptoms. That is, there seems to be an uncommonly large gap between our relatively high verbal facility and low nonverbal ability. He characterizes these symptoms as probably resulting from several factors.

First, we are like computers connected to much lower resolution digital cameras than most people are. In other words, our visual-spatial representations of the world are so much less detailed than most people's that when we try to focus on and thoroughly understand some part of our representation, we get a blurry image when most people get a much clearer one.

Second, if attention is likened to the narrow beam of a flashlight in a large, dark room, while most people's attention moves fairly smoothly and systematically from one portion of the "room" to another until they're able to piece together a coherent perspective of the entire room from all of the areas the "flashlight" illumined, the attention of people like me tends to flit haphazardly from one portion of the room to another, and we're subsequently unable to reconstruct a coherent image or representation of the entire room. This makes it much more difficult for us to understand with visual-spatial thinking the structures and functioning of various places and systems. In my case, it makes it exceptionally difficult for me to conceptualize the filing system where I work. I can't visualize or mentally represent to myself the flow of files into, through, and out of the file room to various units and departments., and I can't readily conceptualize how to perform various tasks involved in the operation of this system.

Third, not only do we take in less visual information than most people and in a more unsystematic manner, but we also process this information more slowly, making us markedly slower at tasks affected by our disabilities.

I've been told and have long suspected that my difficulties probably stem from perinatal brain damage. However, this neuroscientist believes that they may result from genetic anomalies. At least two of the other adults who've approached him have shown unusual duplications or deletions in the base pairs of certain genes in certain chromosomes, and he's curious to know whether I have this same anomaly.

So, he'd like me to submit a blood sample that will be screened for these and other genetic anomalies that could be related to my learning difficulties. He'd also like to subject me to a functional MRI scan and to much more specialized psychometric testing than I've received so far. Finally, he thinks that the human brain exhibits a high degree of what he calls "neuroplasticity."In other words, he thinks it has a remarkable ability to change itself as a result of experience and to compensate for injuries and malfunctions. He's currently working with other researchers to develop video games to train the brains of people with various nonverbal learning difficulties to increase their visual-spatial "bandwidth" and to improve their attentiveness and processing speeds, and I might be included in this research. In the meantime, he speculated that some kind of occupational therapy might help me to either accommodate better to my current job or to find and keep a more suitable one.

All in all, I was very pleased by our meeting, and I'm grateful that such a busy man, who is currently in the middle of seeking a grant from the NIH so that he can continue a promising line of this important research, would take over an hour of his precious time to meet with me and then propose that we go forward with the steps I just listed. I'm now waiting to proceed with my blood and other tests and to find out all that I can about what ails my brain and what I might be able to do about it.


Tom said...

Hooray for this meeting, Steve. Sounds like a great, unique opportunity to learn about yourself and address your problems. Excellent.

Night Stranger said...

I agree with Tom! I think this sounds like what you need, and with him I hope it provides answers to some of the profound questions of your life.