Walking the walk of empathy

I was recently at a Neurosciences conference at the University of Queensland Brain Institute. There were 250 participants and the demographics were as wonderful as the findings. Most of the researchers were Gen Y's, 30 or under, with a few 40 year olds and about six older codgers of my vintage. No medical doctors or psychiatrists, apart from myself and another man, and he was from the US. The major theme was how the brain does empathy, mindfulness, and nurturance, and judging by how caringly and warmly participants interacted with each other, they were "walking the walk", as well as "talking the talk" of nurturance. It was very reassuring to learn this about the younger generation of neuro- scientists.

My psychiatrist colleague Dr Kevin Pelphrey, from Yale University Child Study Centre, specialises in research in Autism and Aspergers in children. As we know, they struggle to read what goes on in others (facial expression, eye movements, body language). Although Autism Spectrum Disorders have a genetic component, the environ- ment and its impact at various stages in a child's development, have a powerful effect. Kevin and his team are interested in finding out what goes on in the developing brain, and have been using Functional Magnetic Resonance, a technique that shows which parts of the brain light up (or don't) when the subject has certain kinds of experiences (like engaging in a range of social perception process) in the case of our autistic kids.

And because some of their mirror neurone sites do not light up properly, it is important to find out how they activate a range of brain processes so we can find ways to help them develop the circuitry that underlies social perception skills. They showed us some delightful modifications to the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines to make them much more infant- friendly. They have also started to give the kids sniffs of oxytocin (the "bonding" hormone) during therapy, with strong facilitation effects.

Currently diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder is made on the basis of clinical findings, but specific brain patterns are emerging in FMRI studies making it possible to use this to provide more objectivity.

Topics:  opinion

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