Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Are Learning Styles Real - and Useful?

From Edutopia

By Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor

September 22, 2015

As noted in Edutopia's Multiple Intelligences brief, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner describes learning styles as how an individual approaches a range of tasks "categorized in different ways: visual/auditory/kinesthetic, impulsive/reflective, right brain/left brain, etc. Gardner calls learning styles 'a hypothesis of how an individual approaches a range of materials.'"

Here we present the views of well-respected educators and researchers debating the limitations and utility of learning styles.

Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert A. Bjork

Harold Pashler is a Professor of Psychology in the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also the author of The Psychology of Attention and the editor of Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology.

Mark McDaniel, Professor of Psychology with a joint appointment in education at Washington University in St. Louis, is the coauthor of Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging and Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field.

Doug Rohrer is Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. Most of his research concerns learning and memory, with a recent emphasis on learning strategies.

Robert A. Bjork is a Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on human learning and memory, and on the implications of the science of learning for instruction and training.

"We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria.

First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students.

Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style.

In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above [editor's note: this is sometimes referred to as "matching" instruction with students' learning styles], which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles." (Source: "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" [PDF])

Mark K. Smith

Mark Smith is a London-based researcher and educator at Developing Learning. He writes for and edits and is on the editorial board of Youth and Policy. His recent co-edited books include Learning Through Outdoor Experiences (PDF) and Youth Work and Faith.

"Few us can approach the "ideal" in this respect and tend to [David Kolb and Roger Fry] suggest developing a strength in, or orientation to, one of the poles of each dimension. As a result they developed a learning style inventory (Kolb 1976), which was designed to place people on a line between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization; and active experimentation and reflective observation. Using this, Kolb and Fry proceeded to identify four basic learning styles.

"...there is a need to take account of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based."

As Anderson (1988, cited in Tennant 1996) highlights, there is a need to take account of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based. Here we need to attend to different models of selfhood -- and the extent to which these may differ from the "western" assumptions that underpin the Kolb and Fry model." (Source: David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning)

David J.M. Kraemer, Lauren M. Rosenberg, and
Sharon L. Thompson-Schill

David J.M. Kraemer is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceLauren M. Rosenberg worked in the laboratory of Sharon L. Thompson-Schill, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"An important feature of processing in a specific cognitive style is that when one encounters a stimulus that is presented in a non-preferred modality, one mentally converts that information into his or her preferred modality.

Thus it is striking that, based on individual differences in cognitive style, these regions are recruited during the tasks for which they are not most strongly associated on the group level. This individualized activation is taken to be indicative of a strategy in which those who utilize the visual style mentally convert written information into a visual representation, and those who utilize the verbal style convert visual information into a linguistic representation. Presumably, this converted representation facilitates processing and later recall.

Future research can reveal more about the nature of these representations and the costs and consequences on task performance of engaging or not engaging in this conversion process." (Source: "The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles")

Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes leads the Learning and Performance Support Systems program at the National Research Council in Canada, and is one of the originators of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). He has published 135 articles, books, magazines, and academic journals, and has presented more than 250 times.

"Cathy Moore writes, 'Learning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research.'

The research, however, is very narrow and based on a narrow "instructivist" definition of teaching as a form of instruction to produce content recall. From my perspective, however, one of the problems of instructivist approaches is that they are completely indifferent to -- and unimpacted by -- individual learner differences.

"... instructivists say instructional method is defined by the content, not the learner. So they begin by denying what to me is the most obvious and intuitive fact about learning and education -- that everyone is different."

The instructivists (people like Willingham spring to mind here) say instructional method is defined by the content, not the learner. So they begin by denying what to me is the most obvious and intuitive fact about learning and education -- that everyone is different. It seems clear to me that we would teach the blind person differently from the deaf, or the expert learner differently from the novice. And if content-focused approaches don't reflect the difference, so much the worse for them.

My take is that many people who talk about learning styles are not instructionists and are working toward more than simple recall -- they are, for example, constructivists seeking to foster understanding, creativity, and value assessment. It's true, as Moore says, that "the best way to honor people's individuality isn't to shove them into simplistic categories." But it isn't to treat them as identical robots either, and this requires beginning with the person, and not with the content."

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist and a Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Senior Director of Project Zero. Among his 30 books are Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World co-written with Katie Davis.

"Senses: Sometimes people speak about a "visual" learner or an "auditory" learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent. Both spatial information and reading occur with the eyes, but they make use of entirely different cognitive faculties.

"What matters is the power of the intelligence that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up."

Similarly, both music and speaking activate the ears, but again these are entirely different cognitive faculties. Recognizing this fact, the concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain -- via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn't matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.

Drop the term "styles." It will confuse others and it won't help either you or your students." (Source: "Howard Gardner: "Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘Learning Styles")

Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is one of the world's leading translators of educational neuroscience. He has written 26 books, including Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement and Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain: Helping Underperforming Students Become Lifelong Learners.

"First, quality studies in education (large sample sizes, randomized, cross-over design, longitudinal, etc.) are very expensive and rare. So the lack of quality studies may raise an eyebrow, but unless there's a drug being tested by a company with deep pockets, it's hard to get the best quality for studies in education. Second, you cannot "prove" anything, only disprove it. The evidence that "disproves" learning styles is not 100 percent airtight, by any means.

What to do? In your teaching, continue to use a variety of teaching methods. Continue to combine visual with auditory. Be sure to add the tactile and action-based processes to learning. Continue to notice which kids respond better to which types of teaching. (Source: "Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?")

Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul writes a weekly column about learning, and wrote Brilliant: The New Science of SmartOrigins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, and The Cult of Personality.

"The "learning style" that teachers and parents should focus on is the universal learning style of the human mind, and two characteristics of it in particular. First, students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms. They learn more, for example, from flashcards that incorporate both text and images -- charts, graphs, etc. -- than from cards that display text alone.

Second, students' interest is kept alive by novelty and variety, so regularly turning away from textbooks and blackboards is key. As long as the new activity genuinely informs the students about the academic subject at hand, clapping a math lesson -- or sketching in science class, or acting during story time -- can help every student to learn better." (Source: "Do Students Really Have Different Learning Styles?")

Carol Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the University of Virginia. She has written over 200 articles and is the author of 15 books, including The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners and, with Tonya Moon, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom.

"The concept of a learning profile is an umbrella term for a body of research suggesting four categories [editor’s note: gender, culture, intelligence preferences, and learning styles] of influence on how people approach learning.

It may be that neuroscientists are hearing us narrowly because we've envisioned and explained the concept of learning style more narrowly than we should have. There is something in the idea of learning style to which so many people relate, that it's worth continuing to study what goes on in learning that is "something like" a learning style." (Source: "Learning Style: What We Know, What We Don't Know, What We Need to Know -- and What We Should Do" [PDF])

David Glenn

David Glenn is the senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education and covers social science research. His writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lingua Franca, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review.

"The grandfather of this territory is David A. Kolb, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University, who began to study learning styles in the late 1960s. In an interview, Mr. Kolb agrees with Mr. Sternberg that Mr. Pashler's review of the literature [on learning styles] seems too thin.

But Mr. Kolb also says that the paper's bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students' particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full "learning cycle," without regard to their students' particular styles.)

"Matching is not a particularly good idea," Mr. Kolb says. "The paper correctly mentions the practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history."

Childhood Trauma May Boost Heart Disease Risk for a Lifetime

From HealthDay News
via WebMD

By Tara Haelle
HealthDay Reporter

September 28, 2015

Experiencing high levels of mental stress at any point in life -- even if only in childhood -- may raise the risk for heart disease, stroke or diabetes in adulthood, a new study suggests.

"The most striking and perhaps sobering finding in our study is that high levels of childhood distress predicted heightened adult disease risk, even when there was no evidence that these high levels of distress persisted into adulthood," said study author Ashley Winning, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

"Greater attention must be paid to psychological distress in childhood," Winning said. "It is an important issue in its own right and may also set up a trajectory of risk of poor health as people age."

The findings were reported online September 28 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Researchers tracked more than 6,700 people from age 7 through age 42 and assessed their levels of psychological stress six different times. At 7, 11 and 16 years of age, teachers rated participants on symptoms of depression, restlessness, misbehavior, hostility, anxiety and related issues. Participants reported on their own mental health at ages 23, 33 and 42.

Then, at age 45, participants were tested for cholesterol, heart rateblood pressure and other characteristics to gauge the state of their immune system, along with their heart and metabolic health.

The risk for heart disease and metabolic disorders was highest among those who experienced stress throughout their lives. But those who had psychological distress only as children or only as adults also had a higher risk than those who did not go through periods of emotional turmoil.

Researchers adjusted their findings to account for other things that could affect health, including socioeconomic status, weight, early health problems, diet, exercise, smoking history and medication use.

Winning emphasized that experiencing stress in childhood does not guarantee a person will have a heart attack or stroke or developdiabetes. While the study showed an association, it did not prove that stress causes later heart woes.

Learning how to manage stress effectively might help, experts say.

She said several factors may contribute to the health risks of stress. They include physical changes stemming from stress and behaviors people adopt in response to extreme stress, such as smoking or inadequate physical activity.

"Focusing on early emotional development and helping children learn to regulate emotions effectively may be an important target for disease prevention and health promotion efforts," Winning added.

Cardiologist Dr. David Freedman agreed that one way to counteract the risk is for people to develop effective stress management skills.

"Perhaps a proper behavioral management strategy in both early childhood and adulthood, as well as early cognitive retraining for those people who have distressed or traumatic personal issues, could lead to better cardiovascular outcomes," suggested Freedman, who is chief of congestive heart failure services at North Shore-LIJ's Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream, N.Y.

Developing resilience over time may also help, said Alison Holman, a researcher in the nursing science program at the University of California, Irvine.

"Many factors contribute to resilience," she said. "Having a sense of control in one's life, having a supportive adult such as a teacher, counselor or coach available to help you, seeking out mastery in an area of life and general support from close others all will help to protect people when facing trauma."

Parents can help children face adversity by being as loving, accepting, supportive and understanding as possible and showing them how to manage emotions without blaming, denying or attacking others, Holman said.

"Helping children learn how to manage their emotions when they come up is crucial," Holman said. "Nurturing them and inculcating healthy habits that support emotional balance is a good idea as well. For example, helping them learn how to eat well and incorporate exercise into their lives is really important, as these will impact how they feel and respond to the stress around them."

As adults, realizing that the past can't be changed is also important, Holman added.

"You can only control what you do from here on out, so, don't fret over it and just take whatever steps you can now to live a healthy, nurturing life," she advised.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Benyam Kinde: Gene Expression and Rett Syndrome

From Science News
Vol. 188, No. 7, October 3, 2015, p. 22

By Sarah Schwartz
September 22, 2015

Medical student explores how gene expression molds higher brain function. 

Benyam Kinde, 27
Many people view the brain as the last frontier of human health research, says Benyam Kinde.

“We still don’t know very much about how individual cells in the brain coordinate the activity of higher-level function that defines us as humans,” he says.

This mystery is one that Kinde, an M.D. and Ph.D. student at Harvard Medical School and MIT, aims to solve. He is interested in how chemical modifications of DNA affect brain function, focusing on a protein nicknamed MeCP2. When this protein is damaged or missing, it changes the activity of multiple genes and causes Rett Syndrome, a disorder marked by developmental delays, seizures and autism-like behaviors.

When MeCP2 grabs onto DNA, it can limit the activity of genes to which it attaches. Kinde, along with former postdoctoral researcher Harrison Gabel and colleagues, went looking for common features in genes controlled by MeCP2 and those altered by the protein’s absence.

In June, the researchers reported that MeCP2 prefers to attach to a specific cluster of DNA and chemicals found mainly in the brain. The genes that MeCP2 normally turns down are longer than average, and are most active in brain cells. In Rett Syndrome, when MeCP2 is reduced, these long genes are overactive.

Kinde and his colleagues found that a chemical that disables DNA-winding proteins can quiet such overactive genes. These insights could help researchers design treatments for Rett Syndrome and similar developmental and autism spectrum disorders. The work appeared in Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

RETTS REVELATION: Benyam Kinde and his colleague
Harrison Gabel talk about their recent finding about
the role of mutated MeCP2 in Rett Syndrome.

Like his brother Isaac, Kinde says he became fascinated with biology while watching his veterinarian father figure out why a horse or an elephant had died. “I was really interested in the investigative nature of his work,” Kinde says. As a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kinde got his first experience with neuroscience research and became passionate about solving medical mysteries.

He credits excellent mentors, including his research advisers, Gabel and his older brother for his achievements so far. Kinde hopes to tackle neurobiology questions in the clinic and the lab. There’s a still lot to learn about how the brain develops, he says.


H.W. Gabel et al. Disruption of DNA-methylation-dependent long gene repression in Rett syndrome. Nature.Vol. 522, June 4, 2015. doi: 10.1038/nature14319.

B. Kinde et al. Reading the unique DNA methylation landscape of the brain: Non-CpG methylation, hydroxymethylation, and MeCP2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 122, June 2, 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1411269112.

Disturbing Video: Kentucky Cop Handcuffs, Traumatizes (Disabled) 3rd Graders


August 3, 2015

"Nationally, students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student population, but are 75% of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education."

COVINGTON, KY — A deputy sheriff shackled two elementary school children who have disabilities, causing pain and trauma, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Children's Law Center, and Dinsmore & Shohl.

The children, an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, were so small that the school resource officer, Kenton County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Sumner in Covington, Kentucky, locked the handcuffs around the children's biceps and forced their hands behind their backs, the lawsuit charges. A disturbing video shows the boy, S.R., being shackled and crying out in pain. 

S.R. has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a history of trauma. The girl, L.G., was twice handcuffed behind her back by her biceps, also causing her pain. L.G. has ADHD and other special needs. Both children were being punished for behavior related to their disabilities. Neither was arrested nor charged with any criminal conduct. The lawsuit was filed on their behalf.

"Shackling children is not okay. It is traumatizing, and in this case it is also illegal," said Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the ACLU. "Using law enforcement to discipline students with disabilities only serves to traumatize children. It makes behavioral issues worse and interferes with the school’s role in developing appropriate educational and behavioral plans for them."

Nationally, students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student population, but are 75 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


These disciplinary practices also feed into the "school-to-prison pipeline," where children are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Many of these children have disabilities, yet instead of receiving necessary educational and counseling services, they are often punished and pushed out. Students of color and students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline. One child in this case is Latino, and the other is African-American.

In addition to Sumner, the lawsuit names Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn, alleging his failure to adequately train and supervise Sumner, a school resource officer for several public elementary schools in Covington. The complaint further claims that the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office violated the Americans with Disabilities Act based on its treatment of the children.

"Kentucky’s school personnel are prohibited from using restraints, especially mechanical restraints, to punish children or as a way to force behavior compliance," said Kim Tandy, executive director of the Children's Law Center. "These regulations include school resource officers. These are not situations where law enforcement action was necessary."

In both cases, Sumner was the school resource officer who handcuffed the children.

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring a change in policies by the Kenton County Sheriff's Office, and additional training for school resource officers in dealing with young children and children with special needs. It also seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages against Sumner.

"It is heartbreaking to watch my little boy suffer because of this experience," said S.R.'s mother, T.R. "It's hard for him to sleep, he has anxiety, and he is scared of seeing the officer in the school. School should be a safe place for children. It should be a place they look forward to going to. Instead, this has turned into a continuing nightmare for my son."

The groups say that law enforcement in schools must be trained on how to work with children with disabilities and trauma. Learning de-escalation skills should be as common as fire drills for schools and any law enforcement officers who serve them.

"There was no public safety threat in any of these instances that warranted throwing the regulations out the window and handcuffing these children," said Kenyon Meyer, an attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl.

"The school resource officer's involvement was harmful and unnecessary, and it escalated rather than helped the situations. We should expect that if school resource officers are in our school systems, their roles should be focused on safety and security, not discipline or punishment of special needs children."

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Autism in Boys vs. Girls: Brain Scans Reveal Underlying Reason for Gender Differences in Autism Symptoms

From Medical Daily

By Susan Scutti
September 3, 2015

Autistic behavior is different in girls than boys, say Stanford University School of Medicine researchers. Their new study not only provides evidence suggesting girls with autism spectrum disorders have distinct characteristics, it also links such gender differences directly to the brain.

Girls with autism spectrum disorders have distinct characteristics,
and these gender differences link directly to the brain: study. Reuters

Autism is characterized by three core symptoms: social impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive/restricted behaviors. Yet, when it comes to high-functioning autism, the boys outnumber girls by four to one, noted the authors.

While no one understands the reason for this gender imbalance, many researchers suspect girls with autism may simply display less severe (or just different) impairments than boys.

The team of Stanford researchers explored this possibility in their current study. For data, they turned to two separate repositories. First, they queried the National Database for Autism Research, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, using these parameters: ages 7 to 13 years, phenotype ASD, and IQ greater than 70. Their search came up with 128 girls and 614 boys.

Examining the data, the research team discovered the boys and girls shared similar low scores for social and communication behaviors; however, the girls had scores much closer to the normal range when they were measured for repetitive and restricted behaviors. What might brain scans reveal about these differences?

Scanned Evidence

For the second phase of their study, the researchers searched the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, using these query parameters: ages 7 to 13, IQ greater than 70, and structural MRI included. Here, the search yielded 25 boys with autism, 25 girls with autism, 19 typically developing boys, and 19 typically developing girls, all with accessible brain scans.

Once again, among the 50 children diagnosed with autism, the girls and boys shared similar social behavior and communication skill impairment, yet the girls had less-severe repetitive and restricted behaviors.

Next, the researchers analyzed the brain scans. Looking at the scans from typically developing boys and girls, they discovered gender differences “in the right postcentral gyrus, left parahippocampus, right lateral occipital cortex, right putamen, and bilateral cerebellum.” These results, the researchers noted, are consistent with several previous studies of brain structures in children.

Looking at the scans for children with autism, the researchers observed gender differences once again, but in a way dissimilar to that of the typically developing children. Among the children with autism, gray matter patterns in the motor cortex, supplementary motor area, cerebellum, fusiform gyrus, and amygdala “accurately discriminated” the girls from the boys, noted the authors.

Importantly, these regions of the brain all contribute to motor function. Since many repetitive behaviors, such as hand-flapping, have a motor component, the results of this study support the frequently observed differences between boys with autism and girls with autism.

Ultimately, the authors say their work suggests a potential reason why there's a low proportion of females diagnosed with autism.

Because repetitive/restricted behaviors are "the most overt and noticeable feature that flags a potential case of the disorder," the authors wrote, "girls with less prominent repetitive or restricted behaviors may miss being tested... or get misclassified as having social communication disorder."

On the flip side of that coin, boys with repetitive behaviors may be immediately (and incorrectly) diagnosed with autism, despite the fact that such behavior may signal other neurodevelopmental disorders.


Supekar K, Menon V. Sex differences in structural organization of motor systems and their dissociable links with repetitive/restricted behaviors in children with autism. Molecular Autism. 2015.

Autism's Hidden Gifts

From The Atlantic

By Olga Khazan
September 23, 2015

There’s a popular misconception that autistic people are either anti-social tech geniuses or Rain Man-like savants. But research is increasingly showing that even “low-functioning” autistic people might be smarter than neurotypical people in certain ways.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes meeting a pair of 26-year-old twins, John and Michael, in a state hospital. The two men had been institutionalized since childhood and written off as mentally disabled.

One day when Sacks was with them, a box of matches fell off the table, spilling its contents onto the floor. Almost immediately, the twins cried out, “111!” and then, “37, 37, 37, 111.”

John and Michael couldn’t explain how they counted the matches so quickly or why they broke the figure into thirds spontaneously:

"John made a gesture with two outstretched fingers and his thumb, which seemed to suggest that they had spontaneously trisected the number, or that it “came apart” of its own accord, into these three equal parts, by a sort of spontaneous, numerical “fission” ... They seemed surprised at my surprise—as if I were somehow blind."

Even people who don’t know much about autism might be familiar with “autistic savants” like John and Michael, mostly thanks to the work of Sacks, a handful of savant autobiographies, and most of all, the 1988 film Rain Man. (However, the real-life savant on which Dustin Hoffman’s character was based, a man named Kim Peek, was not actually autistic.)

Those accounts have contributed to a popular misconception: that when autistic people are unusually skilled, those skills are impractical and not connected to “real” intellect.

Other autistic people are known to possess extraordinary abilities, yet function at a high level. In the memoir Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet, who has Asperger Syndrome, described a childhood filled with social stumbles, but also his delight in mastering 10 different languages. Similarly, some tech geniuses on “the spectrum” might have better luck wooing venture capitalists than romantic partners, yet they still manage to live independently and make bank.

Increasingly, researchers are finding that even autistic people who seem, at first glance, to be profoundly disabled might actually be gifted in surprising ways. And these talents are not limited to quirky party tricks, like knowing whether January 5, 1956 was a Tuesday. Scientists believe they are signs of true intelligence that might be superior to that of non-autistic people.

Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal who has studied autism for decades, led an analysis last year which suggested that the autistic brain seeks out the kinds of information it “prefers” to process while ignoring materials—like verbal and social cues, for example—that it doesn’t like. Just as many blind people have heightened hearing, Mottron says, the brains of autistic people might be better able to understand numbers or patterns.

In 2011, Mottron found that people with autism concentrate more of their brain’s resources on visual processing and less on tasks like planning and impulse control. That’s why, as he showed in 2009, autistic people are up to 40 percent faster at problem-solving.

For his autistic subjects, Mottron used a test called Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices, which relies on visual pattern recognition. At the time, he and others faced critics who thought autistic people would fare abysmally on such a complex test. In the mid-2000s, non-verbal people with autism were presumed by some to be mentally retarded.

But, as it turned out, “autistics are perceptual experts,” Mottron told me. “They are superior to us in processing complex patterns.”

Mottron has also found that people with autism have excellent memories—both when it comes to remembering long-ago events and in remembering details that neurotypical people would gloss over. That’s one reason why he closely collaborates with an autistic researcher, Michelle Dawson, in his lab. “Whereas the methodologies used in studies of face-perception in autism are for me terribly similar,” Mottron wrote in a Nature editorial in 2011, “Dawson can instantaneously recall them.”

* * * * *

One of The Onion’s parody news videos is about an “autistic reporter” sent to cover a train accident that killed a man. “Luckily there was not structural damage caused to the train,” the actor says, before rattling off the train’s fascinating (to him) particulars, like its “Westinghouse E-CAM XCA448F propulsion.” That’s the cliche, of course: that an autistic person would memorize a locomotive-traction system but overlook the real, human story behind it.

Unlike when Mottron was first starting his research, it’s now more widely accepted that autistic people can be precocious at technical and visual tasks. But it’s not like they’d be great poets or artists... right?

In fact, newer studies suggest that the autism advantage might extend even to domains that are thought to be the stronghold of neurotypical people, like creativity. A paper published last month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders sought to measure the output of creative ideas in a sample of autistic and neurotypical people.

The participants were asked to think of as many non-obvious uses for a brick and a paper clip as possible. Highly autistic people in the experiment didn’t produce very many responses, but the answers they did give were highly unusual—a strong sign of creative thinking.

Neurotypical participants would think of all the easy answers—like using the paperclip to reset their iPhones—and only then move on to more innovative uses. But the autistic people jumped straight to the ingenious responses, saying they would use the paperclip as a weight for the front of a paper airplane, for example, or for heating up in order to suture a wound.

“Most people focus on one property of the object and do associations with that,” Catherine Best, health researcher at the University of Stirling and a co-author of the study, told me. “They might say, ‘Oh, it's like a piece of wire. What else can you do with wire?’ People with autistic traits skip to the more difficult stuff.”

The idea that autistic brains are intrinsically deficient is one of the many myths Steve Silberman debunks in his recent book, Neurotribes. Think of the brain as an operating system, he writes: “Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”

Silberman said he avoids using terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning.” “People who are classified as high-functioning are often struggling in ways that are not obvious,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross recently, “whereas science has shown that people who are classified as low-functioning often have talents and skills that are not obvious.”

Or to borrow another famous operating-system slogan, many autistic people simply “think different,” not worse.

This isn’t to suggest that the parents of severely autistic children—some of whom are prone to tantrums and violence—don’t face real challenges. There’s only so far someone who can’t speak can go with pattern recognition, creativity, and detail orientation.

But this and other research might signal that it’s time to rethink the way educators help young autistic children prepare for the broader world. Early childhood interventions should focus on harnessing strengths, Mottron says, rather than erasing the differences between autistic children and neurotypical kids.

“I no longer believe that intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism,” Mottron has said. And because of that, he believes, “The limits of autistics should constantly be pushed and their educational materials should never be simplified.”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Possible Biomarker for Autism Discovered

From Neuroscience News

September 22, 2015

Study also points to potential new drug discovery advances.

By identifying a key signaling defect within a specific membrane structure in all cells, University of California, Irvine researchers believe, they have found both a possible reliable biomarker for diagnosing certain forms of autism and a potential therapeutic target.

Dr. J. Jay Gargus, Ian Parker and colleagues at the UCI Center for Autism Research & Translation examined skin biopsies of patients with three very different genetic types of the disorder (fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis 1 and 2). They discovered that a cellular calcium signaling process involving the inositol trisphosphate receptor was very much altered.

This IP3R functional defect was located in the endoplasmic reticulum, which is among the specialized membrane compartments in cells called organelles, and may underpin cognitive impairments – and possibly digestive and immune problems – associated with autism.

“We believe this finding will be another arrow in the quiver for early and accurate diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders,” said Gargus, director of the Center for Autism Research & Translation and professor of pediatrics and physiology & biophysics. “Equally exciting, it also presents a target of a molecular class already well-established to be useful for drug discovery.”

Study results appear online in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature publication.

Autism spectrum disorder is a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders affecting 2 percent of U.S. children. The social and economic burden of ASD is enormous, currently estimated at more than $66 billion per year in the U.S. alone. Drug development has proven problematic due to the limited understanding of the underlying causes of ASD, as demonstrated by the recent failure of several much anticipated drug trials.

There are also no current, reliable diagnostic biomarkers for ASD. Genetic research has identified hundreds of genes that are involved, which impedes diagnosis and, ultimately, drug development. There simply may be too many targets, each with too small an effect.

Many of these genes associated with ASD, however, have been found to be part of the same signaling pathway, and multiple defects in this pathway may converge to produce a large functional change.

The UCI scientists detected such a convergence in the IP3R calcium channel in an organelle called the endoplasmic reticulum. Organelles are membrane structures within cells with specialized cellular functions. According to Gargus, diseases of the organelles, such as the ER, are an emerging field in medicine, with several well-recognized neurological ailments linked to two other ones, the mitochondria and lysosomes.

The IP3R functional defect was located in the endoplasmic reticulum,
which is among the specialized membrane compartments in cells called
organelles, and may underpin cognitive impairments – and possibly digestive
and immune problems – associated with autism.
Image is for illustrative purposes only. Credit: Bruce Blaus.

The IP3R controls the release of calcium from the ER. In the brain, calcium is used to communicate information within and between neurons, and it activates a host of other cell functions, including ones regulating learning and memory, neuronal excitability and neurotransmitter release – areas known to be dysfunctional in ASD.

“We propose that the proper function of this channel and its signaling pathway is critical for normal performance of neurons and that this signaling pathway represents a key ‘hub’ in the pathogenesis of ASD,” said Parker, a fellow of London’s Royal Society and UCI professor of neurobiology & behavior, who studies cellular calcium signaling.

To see if IP3R function is altered across the autism spectrum, clinical researchers at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders – which is affiliated with the Center for Autism Research & Translation – are currently expanding the study and have begun to examine children with and without typical ASD for the same signaling abnormalities. These patients undergo complete behavioral diagnostic testing, and sophisticated EEG, sleep and biochemical studies are performed. This includes the sequencing of their entire genome. Also, skin cell samples are cultured and made available to lab-based researchers for functional assays.

In the area of drug discovery, scientists at the Center for Autism Research & Translation continue to probe the IP3R channel, specifically how it regulates the level of neuron excitability. The brains of people who have autism show signs of hyperexcitability, which is also seen in epilepsy, a disorder increasingly found to be associated with ASD.

Cells from individuals who have autism exhibit depressed levels of calcium signaling, and this might explain why these patients experience this hyperexcitability. By restoring the release of calcium from the IP3R, the researchers believe, they can apply a “brake” on this activity.
About this autism research

Funding: Galina Schmunk, Bryan Boubion and Ian Smith of UCI contributed to the study, which received support from the National Institutes of Health (grants GM048071 and GM1000201) and the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation. The discovery is being patented by the University of California as a diagnostic tool and for identifying potential therapeutic agents.


Shared functional defect in IP3R-mediated calcium signaling in diverse monogenic autism syndromes

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects 2% of children, and is characterized by impaired social and communication skills together with repetitive, stereotypic behavior. The pathophysiology of ASD is complex due to genetic and environmental heterogeneity, complicating the development of therapies and making diagnosis challenging.

Growing genetic evidence supports a role of disrupted Ca2+ signaling in ASD. Here, we report that patient-derived fibroblasts from three monogenic models of ASD—fragile X and tuberous sclerosis TSC1 and TSC2 syndromes—display depressed Ca2+ release through inositol trisphosphate receptors (IP3Rs). This was apparent in Ca2+ signals evoked by G protein-coupled receptors and by photo-released IP3 at the levels of both global and local elementary Ca2+ events, suggesting fundamental defects in IP3R channel activity in ASD.

Given the ubiquitous involvement of IP3R-mediated Ca2+ signaling in neuronal excitability, synaptic plasticity, gene expression and neurodevelopment, we propose dysregulated IP3R signaling as a nexus where genes altered in ASD converge to exert their deleterious effect. These findings highlight potential pharmaceutical targets, and identify Ca2+ screening in skin fibroblasts as a promising technique for early detection of individuals susceptible to ASD.

“Shared functional defect in IP3R-mediated calcium signaling in diverse monogenic autism syndromes” by G Schmunk, B J Boubion, I F Smith, I Parker and J J Gargus in Translational Psychiatry. Published online September 22 2015 doi:10.1038/tp.2015.123

Justice Department Issues Technical Assistance on Testing Accommodations

From the Center for Parent Information and Resources

September, 2015

Useful to parents in understanding and communicating what’s permitted in terms of testing accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

On September 8, 2015, the Justice Department issued technical assistance on testing accommodations for individuals with disabilities who take standardized exams and other high-stakes tests. This guidance addresses the obligation of testing entities, both private and public, to ensure that the test scores of individuals with disabilities accurately reflect the individual’s aptitude, achievement, or the skill that the exam purports to measure, rather than his or her disability.

The document discusses:
  • who is entitled to testing accommodations,
  • what types of testing accommodations must be provided, and
  • what documentation may be required of the person requesting testing accommodations.

The document also discusses prohibited flagging policies, and how test scores for test-takers receiving disability-related accommodations should be reported.

Read the technical assistance document at:

A PDF version is also available, at:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Depleted ATP Levels Causes Neural Dysfunction in Model of Neurodegenerative Disease

From Neuroscience News

September 14, 2015

A new study from the Gladstone Institutes shows for the first time that impairments in mitochondria—the brain’s cellular power plants—can deplete cellular energy levels and cause neuronal dysfunction in a model of neurodegenerative disease.

A link between mitochondria, energy failure, and neurodegeneration has long been hypothesized. However, no previous studies were able to comprehensively investigate the connection because sufficiently sensitive tests, or assays, were not available to measure ATP (the energy unit of the cell that is generated by mitochondria) in individual neurons.

In the current study, which was chosen as the Paper of the Week in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the scientists created novel assays to more accurately measure the brain’s energy production. Using a model of Leigh’s disease, a genetically inherited neurodegenerative disorder that affects mitochondria, the researchers tested energy levels in neurons using the new assays. They found that the genetic mutation associated with Leigh’s disease compromised ATP levels, and this reduction of ATP was enough to cause significant cellular dysfunction.

“It was always assumed that defects in mitochondria would result in a depletion of energy levels, which would be toxic to neurons,” says first author Divya Pathak, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease. “But no one had been able to prove this because the necessary assays were not available. Now that we’ve demonstrated the link between impaired mitochondria, a loss of ATP, and neuronal dysfunction, the next step is to see if this connection holds true in conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Applying their new assay in healthy neurons, the researchers also determined the energy threshold needed to support synaptic vesicle cycling—the process by which brain cells release neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. The scientists blocked glycolysis, another way that cells make ATP, so that the cells had to rely solely on their mitochondria for energy. This allowed the researchers to more accurately assess the contribution of mitochondrial ATP to different steps in the cycle, and how this process goes awry when mitochondria malfunction.

From this exploration, the scientists revealed that bringing the vesicles back up into the cell after they have released their neurotransmitters is the most energy-demanding process. Indeed, in the model of Leigh’s disease, the cells did not have enough ATP to complete this step.

A link between mitochondria, energy failure, and neurodegeneration has long
been hypothesized. However, no previous studies were able to comprehensively
investigate the connection because sufficiently sensitive tests, or assays, were
not available to measure ATP (the energy unit of the cell that is generated
by mitochondria) in individual neurons. Credit: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal.

The researchers also compared energy levels in boutons—the docks from which neurotransmitters are shipped—with and without mitochondria. Remarkably, there was no difference in energy levels between the two, and both types of boutons had sufficient ATP to support synaptic vesicle cycling. From this, the scientists concluded that under normal conditions, ATP diffuses rapidly from boutons with mitochondria to those without, so that even those boutons lacking mitochondria have sufficient energy to function under normal conditions. They note it will be important to determine if boutons lacking mitochondria will still be able to function properly in diseases that disrupt the distribution of mitochondria.

Senior author Ken Nakamura, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease, says that conducting this research in both healthy and diseased cells is essential for interpreting the findings. “We really need to understand the basics of cell biology in a normal setting in order to comprehend changes in disease,” he explains. “It’s worth taking the time to study these underlying biological processes so that we can identify the best therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative disorders.”

About this Genetics and Neurology Research

Other investigators on the study include Lauren Shields, Bryce Mendelsohn, Dominik Haddad, Wei Lin, and Hwajin Kim from the Gladstone Institutes; Akos Gerencser and Martin Brand from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging; and Robert Edwards from the University of California San Francisco.

Funding: The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the National Science Foundation, the Pediatric Scientist Development Program and from the Betty Brown Family, and the Joan and David Traitel Family Trust.


The Role of Mitochondrially Derived ATP in Synaptic Vesicle Recycling

Synaptic mitochondria are thought to be critical in supporting neuronal energy requirements at the synapse, and bioenergetic failure at the synapse may impair neural transmission and contribute to neurodegeneration. However, little is known about the energy requirements of synaptic vesicle release or whether these energy requirements go unmet in disease, primarily due to a lack of appropriate tools and sensitive assays.

To determine the dependence of synaptic vesicle cycling on mitochondrially derived ATP levels, we developed two complementary assays sensitive to mitochondrially derived ATP in individual, living hippocampal boutons. The first is a functional assay for mitochondrially derived ATP that uses the extent of synaptic vesicle cycling as a surrogate for ATP level. The second uses ATP FRET sensors to directly measure ATP at the synapse. Using these assays, we show that endocytosis has high ATP requirements and that vesicle re-acidification and exocytosis require comparatively little energy.

We then show that to meet these energy needs, mitochondrially-derived ATP is rapidly dispersed in axons, thereby maintaining near normal levels of ATP even in boutons lacking mitochondria. As a result, the capacity for synaptic vesicle cycling is similar in boutons without mitochondria as in those with mitochondria.

Finally, we show that loss of a key respiratory subunit implicated in Leigh disease markedly decreases mitochondrially derived ATP levels in axons, thus inhibiting synaptic vesicle cycling. This proves that mitochondria-based energy failure can occur and be detected in individual neurons that have a genetic mitochondrial defect.

“The Role of Mitochondrially Derived ATP in Synaptic Vesicle Recycling” by Divya Pathak, Lauren Y. Shields, Bryce A. Mendelsohn, Dominik Haddad, Wei Lin, Akos A. Gerencser, Hwajin Kim, Martin D. Brand, Robert H. Edwards and Ken Nakamura in Journal of Biological Chemistry. Published online September 11 2015 doi:10.1074/jbc.M115.656405

“I’m Not Arguing!!!” – The Battle Over My Office Chairs

From Academy MetroWest's Blog

By Bruce Sabian
September 22, 2015

In my office, I have two green chairs that are more comfortable than my other office chairs. As chairs go, they’re entirely unexceptional. They’re comfortable enough but not extraordinarily so. But if you were to watch the way some of our kids argue over them, you’d assume they were truly heaven on earth for the butt cheeks of our nation’s youth!

Groups at Academy MetroWest happen in a gym. In a typical, 75 minute session, we do two cooperative, physical activities and then head into the office for a snack. Our kids play pretty hard during our gym activities. But it’s incredible to see how many budding Olympic sprinters are in our midst once they start heading for those green chairs.

Kids have a knack for being able to argue about anything, but my chairs seem to possess some special quality that makes their occupancy something particularly worth battling over. If I let them, some of my kids with would argue for hours to prove that they are the ones most entitled to one of the thrones. In fact, I don’t let them do that because it really could go on for hours.

Listening to extended arguments over this type of silliness will gradually eat away at your soul. Nobody wants that.

Among kids with social skills issues, particularly those on the autism spectrum, a propensity to argue can be a manifestation of deficits in any or all of three cognitive abilities: Theory of Mind – better known as perspective taking, Central Coherence – or the ability to see the big picture, and Executive Function, “an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.” (1)

Seeing how deficits in perspective taking could affect one’s tendency to argue is pretty simple. If understanding others’ perspectives is something that doesn’t come easily or intuitively to you, you’re likely to view your participation in arguments as simply advocating for something to which you’re obviously entitled or for a position that’s clearly correct. This summer, someone wore a t-shirt to our summer camp that read “I’m not arguing. I’m just explaining why I’m right!”

It made me laugh because it was such a great representation of the way some kids – and adults for that matter – think. It disregards the possibility that anyone else has a valid position that might be worth hearing. It also doesn’t take into account what a drag it is to being on the receiving end of one of those “explanations.”

Executive functions like impulsiveness, cognitive inflexibility, and deficits in emotional regulation also make it difficult for people to avoid “taking the bait” and becoming involved in arguments.

They can also lead to people becoming stuck or being overwhelmed by anger and frustration, which make resolving the conflict or moving on from it very difficult.

A typical instance of “chair wars,” starts with claims of “I got here first!” or “He had it last week!” or “He only got to the chair first because he pushed me out of the way!” Cogent and captivating arguments, right?

Maybe the easiest and most obvious solution to the problem would be to set up a weekly schedule of who gets to sit in the comfy chairs. In fact, I’ve done this a few times with younger kids and it can, in fact, deflect these disagreements before they happen. You get some of the hard core arguers who might have a problem if they were absent on their scheduled week but, for the most part, it provides a concrete, structured way of ending arguments before they start.

Even though this strategy can be helpful in facilitating a peaceful snack time, I tend not to use it much once kids reach 8 or 9 years old for the simple reason that learning to resolve conflicts is such an important aspect of social skills. By the time kids reach a certain age, it’s reasonable to expect that they should be able to settle petty disagreements, with or without adult support.

Another way to settle the argument is to listen to each kid state their case in an effort to fairly and equitably determine which of them is, in fact, most entitled to plant themselves in one of the chairs on any given week. Some of the kids I work with have spectacular verbal skills and I’m sure I’d hear some arguments worthy of a Supreme Court case. But if we followed that path, we’d never get to any activities and kids would inevitably leave the session feeling cheated and irritated.

I’ve found that the best way to resolve silly disagreements like the ones over my chairs is to help kids take a step back and see the big picture. What I’ve been doing lately has been to ask the kids to stop arguing for a moment to ask them a few questions. First, I ask “Before you got here today, how many of you were looking forward to coming?” Most of our kids enjoy the time they spend here and raise their hands. Then I ask “When you think about the group and what you enjoy about it, how many of you list ‘sitting in Bruce’s green chairs’ as the most important thing? How many of you have it in your top 5? Top 10?”

Then I’ll say “If sitting in a green chair is not one of your 10 favorite things about coming here, why is it that right now it’s become the only important thing to you? Because what you’re doing is, in effect, choosing to spend the last 10 minutes of our group arguing over who gets to sit in these chairs, rather than having snack and doing something fun.”

In response I’m usually met with a group of sheepish expressions, and a collective willingness to return to the group’s agenda. That’s not to say that a similar issue won’t arise during the following session but I’ve found that the more we practice working out disagreements like this, the less intense the successive arguments become.

(1) Executive functions. From


Bruce Sabian is director of Academy MetroWest, an independently owned, activity group therapy program that has been helping children and their families since 1994. It fosters the overall development of children by creating an environment where they can be physically active, build self-confidence and self-esteem, and develop social skills through cooperative and collaborative physical play. Learn more about their Social Skills Program.