Saturday, April 25, 2009
Party of One
Speaking of such things, Science Daily and Time magazine (of all people) seem to be among the few media outlets covering a fascinating development: a theory about why fever seems to temporarily lessen autism's symptoms.
Like other parents with autistic kids, I've noticed this effect for years -- even before I knew Morgan had autism. (There's a scene in Sixpence House where an 18-month old Morgan suddenly becomes uncharacteristically pliant and demonstrative. Turns out it's a fever.) I wouldn't say that Morgan stops being autistic when he gets a fever, but he's noticeably more engaged. The most startling thing is that he makes far more eye contact, something so out of character for him that in at least one case, it alerted me to his fever before a hand to his forehead did.
Here's why, according to this new study:
The brain region that drew the attention of the authors is known as the locus coeruleus, a small knot of neurons located in the brain stem. Not a lot of high-order processing goes on so deep in the brain's basement, but the locus coeruleus does govern the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which is critical in triggering arousal or alarm, as in the famed fight-or-flight response. Arousal also plays a role in our ability to pay attention — you can't deal with the lion trying to eat you, after all, if you don't focus on it first. And attention, in turn, plays a critical role in such complex functions as responding to environmental cues and smoothly switching your concentration from one task to another. Those are abilities kids with autism lack...The locus coeruleus does one other thing too: it regulates fever.