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Researchers reveal first brain study of Temple Grandin

by  /  14 October 2012


Left-leaning: Unlike controls (top), Temple Grandin has lateral ventricles (bottom) that are significantly larger on the left side of her brain than on the right.

Left-leaning: Unlike controls (top), Temple Grandin has lateral ventricles (bottom) that are significantly larger on the left side of her brain than on the right.

Temple Grandin, perhaps the world’s most famous person with autism, has exceptional nonverbal intelligence and spatial memory, and her brain has a host of structural and functional differences compared with the brains of controls, according to a presentation Saturday at the 2012 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in New Orleans.

Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, is an outspoken advocate for autism research and awareness. She is known as a ‘savant,’ or a person who shows characteristic social deficits of autism and yet also has some exceptional abilities. For instance, she has extremely sharp visual acuity.

This is the first study to take a close look at Grandin’s brain, and one of the first to look at the brains of savants.

“We asked how might brain structure and function be related to both outstanding ability and outstanding disability — the autism — within the same brain?” says Jason Cooperrider, a graduate student in Janet Lainhart’s lab at the University of Utah, who presented the work.

Researchers at several institutions gave Grandin a slew of psychological tests and scanned her brain using several imaging technologies. She was 63 years old at the time of the scans.

Grandin’s brain volume is significantly larger than that of three neurotypical controls matched on age, sex and handedness. Some children with autism have abnormally large brains, though researchers are still working out how head and brain size changes across development.

Grandin’s lateral ventricles, the chambers that hold cerebrospinal fluid, are skewed in size so that the left one is much larger than the right. “It’s quite striking,” Cooperrider says.

On both sides of her brain, Grandin has an abnormally large amygdala, a deep brain region that processes emotion. Her brain also shows differences in white matter, the bundles of nerve fibers that connect one region to another. The volume of white matter on the left side of her brain is higher than that in controls, the study found.

Using diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers traced white-matter connections in Grandin’s brain. They found what the researchers call “enhanced” connections — defined by several measures including the fractional anisotropy, or integrity, of the fibers — in the left precuneus, a region involved in episodic memory and visuospatial processing.

Grandin also has enhanced white matter in the left inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, which connects the frontal and occipital lobes and might explain her keen visual abilities, the researchers say.

Grandin also has some “compromised,” or weak, connections, defined in part by decreased integrity of the fibers. She has a weak left inferior frontal gyrus, for example, which includes the famous Broca’s area for language. She also shows compromised connections in the right fusiform gyrus, a brain region involved in processing faces.

Grandin received exceptionally high scores on several psychological assessments, including tests of spatial reasoning, spelling and reading. She has a perfect score on Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices, which assesses nonverbal intelligence. Her weakest skill is verbal working memory.

Taken together, these findings agree with Grandin’s personal reflections of her abilities. As she wrote in her book Thinking in Pictures: “When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”

For more reports from the 2012 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, please click here.


10 responses to “Researchers reveal first brain study of Temple Grandin”

  1. Jon Brock says:

    Interesting but very very preliminary. There’s huge variation in the brains of non-autistic people, so with only three control subjects, it’s impossible to know how unusual Temple’s brain is on any of the measures.

  2. Temple's Brain says:

    Temple Grandin’s unique brain – 60 Minutes – CBS News –

  3. Phillip says:

    Research further for amygdala development, corpus callosum differences and hippocampus differences, there are many more studies done in this area than people realize. It goes a long way in explaining autism, and is the focus of a workshop I do called “This is your Brain on Autism.

  4. usethebrainsgodgiveyou1 says:

    Raven testing and Michelle Dawson’s take is just reiterated here. I love Temple Grandin, as her suggestions served as a profoundly adept guideline to raising a child with autism.

  5. use the method says:

    This is only getting any attention at all because Temple Grandin is famous. If the exact same report had been done, but the autistic subject was an anonymous high-functionic autistic person, it would have been laughed out of that meeting. It’s disgraceful pseudo-science, and a lot of neuroscientists at the meeting (I was there) were disgusted.

    That’s because saying that her brain looks different from three other people is like saying her face looks different from 3 other people — SO WHAT. Unless you have a representative sample of autistic people, and a sample of non-autistic people, and can then show that their brains differ in a reliable way that is statistically unlikely to occur by chance, you can not say anything about brain organization in autism. NOTHING. It’s called the scientific method, and somebody seems to have forgotten to teach it to this graduate student.

    There is huge individual variability in brain shape, just as there is huge individual variability in face shape. This “study” has contributed nothing of value whatsoever.
    God how I hate this sort of pandering by scientists who should know better.

    • Anonymous says:

      Temple grandin has (among other things!) made a huge contribution to helping experts understand the difficulties children with Autism have and the best ways to support them. She continually explains that everyone with autism is different with different strengths and weaknesses. There are common difficulties for people on the spectrum to do with Communication, socialisation, anxiety and sensory issues (to name a few). All these things are affected to different degrees in different people. I recently saw a brilliant video of Temple (on the NAS website – June 12) where she showed her brains scans and each of the scans could explain the difficulties in each of those areas which are common to people on the spectrum. Never once did she suggest that everyone on the spectrum had the same brain formation!! She did mention though, that you could see that if someone had more or less of certain paths in the brain (forgive my laymans terms) how this would affect a personI . I am not a scientist but I know Autism like the back of my hand and seeing those scans gave me another tool to use to explain to the autism-sceptics that think that children on the spectrum are just naughty kids. We already knew that their brains functioned differently – this gives us a visual aid to explain it to those who don’t quite grasp it. When I train – the very first thing I say is that every person on the spectrum is different, with different anxieties, strengths and weaknesses and you’ve got to get to knnow each person individually to be able to support them and help them learn to manage their own anxieties and build on their own abilities (which are far more important than their weaknesses). As a mum of two children on the spectrum and a professional who works with children with ASD in a mainstream environment- I was very pleased to see this study. So thank you Temple and everyone involved int he study!

  6. Murfomurf says:

    I have no doubt that Temple Grandin is not a “typical” autistic person- but who would be? Surely autistic people share their essential “autism” as a final common pathway of various developmental hiccups with brain formation, most likely in utero & the areas of their brains affected may only show small overlap. The fact that Temple Grandin is both quite autistic and intellectually able may show with better contrast the difference between areas of normal/high normal function vs. compromised areas. She is also a good subject as she is now settled in her adult functions and not still developing, as are children who have been the subjects of larger studies. I have known hundreds of autistic people and they are most often more different from each other than the rest of us are from our neighbours, making me think they all have different sets of anomalies in brain formation and function. Even the level of autism varies a lot- some developing a long way as they age and others hardly changing one iota. IMHO the study of Temple Grandin is very worthwhile. No one should expect it to solve all the puzzles about their own autistic family member unless they’re part of Temple’s family!

  7. Cooperrider et al. says:

    We want to emphasize that it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from any individual brain about larger groups of people. Dr. Grandin is a unique individual, with talents and abilities that extend far beyond any label, diagnosis, or condition, and this is reflected in her brain imaging. Indeed, much of her work has been to teach individuals with and without autism to develop the unique abilities and interests that make each person different.

    When presented with the opportunity to obtain images of Dr. Grandin’s brain, it was not our intent to make a definitive characterization of how Dr. Grandin’s brain “fits” into a population. Rather, we are presenting images and associated standardized testing as a self-portrait of Dr. Grandin. A limited group of matched controls was used as a benchmark to bring out contrast in this portrait. This contrast illustrates features from the imaging literature and our experience that typify autism, such as greater engagement of the parietal lobe during reading, as well as idiosyncrasies that provide a more intimate window into Dr. Grandin’s mind, such as brain activation while she listened to “Stairway to Heaven.”

    It is our hope that the images of Dr. Grandin’s brain will supplement the biographical and autobiographical information available about Dr. Grandin and add depth to the public persona she has become as an advocate and friend for many with disabilities and unique strengths.

  8. Smurfette says:

    The next evolution of man?

  9. Doron says:

    I want temple to watch this short clip, of a man playing on a pinao *for cows*:

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