Temple Grandin, perhaps the world’s most famous person with autism, allowed scientists to peek into her exceptional brain for the first time in order to better understand the minds of savants. Scans confirmed that Grandin’s brain is, indeed, special.
For starters, Grandin’s brain is significantly larger than three so-called neurotypical brains the researchers compared it to, a characteristic that some children with autism also share. And Grandin’s lateral ventricles are abnormally skewed in size, with the left one much larger than the right, a discovery the researchers called “quite striking.”
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’s brain also contains what appears to be some compromised, or weak, features. Her left inferior frontal gyrus—an area important for language—is less developed than the average person’s, and she has fewer connections in the right fusiform gyrus, a region involved in processing faces.
Despite these disadvantages, the researchers report that she received exceptionally high scores on several psychological assessments they administered, including tests measuring spatial reasoning, spelling and reading. She holds a perfect score on Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices, which assess nonverbal intelligence. Her weakest skill, SFARI reports, is verbal working memory.
Grandin, an advocate for autism research and awareness, is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University where she puts her sharp visual acuity and keen spatial memory to use in helping the livestock industry better perfect its systems for managing animals. As she writes in her book, Thinking in Pictures, “When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”
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