Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brain Anatomy and Autism

Last week, I had the opportunity to watch a fascinating free webinar about brain anatomy. Sponsored the Great Plains Laboratory, Dr. Kurt Woeller offers monthly online lectures about topics typically related to autism. Although I majored in English in college, I’ve always had an interest in medicine and psychology, two of the areas I’ve researched intensively since Alex was diagnosed with autism. This month’s online seminar, entitled “Brain Regions and Their Dysfunction in Autism—Clinical Correlations for Behavior, Language, and Cognitive Problems,” provided a clear description of the anatomy of the brain along with an explanation of how autism symptoms can manifest if inflammation exists in certain regions. Dr. Woeller asserts that brain inflammation is a major contributing and causative factor in autism. Moreover, he cites various sources of neurological inflammation in autism: glutens and caseins from foods, heavy metal toxicity, and infections from bacteria, viruses, and/or fungi, such as yeast. Since we have treated Alex for heavy metal toxicity and yeast overgrowth as well as kept him on a gluten-free and casein-free diet upon discovering he has sensitivities to both, I strongly suspect that many of his issues are directly related to inflammation of his nervous system.

Dr. Woeller’s webinar focused upon regions of the brain and explained how inflammation in these regions can affect behavior and function. A summary of the function of each area and how dysfunction manifests follows.

The frontal lobe of the brain deals with understanding the connection between actions and consequences and making decisions. Those who have inflammation of this lobe tend to have no sense of danger, engaging in risky behavior, such as climbing and fleeing. Problems with this lobe can also lead to a loss of smell and taste. Fortunately, Alex does not exhibit problems with the frontal lobe as he tends to be quite cautious and possesses a keen sense of smell and taste.

The parietal lobe is involved with sensory information and the ability to read and solve math problems. Since Alex is quite strong in his sensory processing, reading, and math skills, I suspect that his parietal lobe has not been affected.

The temporal lobe is responsible for many areas related to language processing, including grammar and word production, semantics of speech, and functions of language, all of which are problematic for Alex. In addition, facial recognition occurs in the temporal lobe, and Alex has some trouble recognizing people’s faces, often confusing his cousins who are siblings. While I think Alex understands what is being said to him fairly easily, he has always had difficulty producing speech. Consequently, his temporal lobe has likely been impacted by neurological inflammation.

The occipital lobe, which receives information from the eyes, processes visual input. Those with problems in this area often cannot identify colors even though they can see them. Alex’s strengths lie in his visual processing because he is quite visually perceptive, noticing small details most people would miss. Hence, he probably doesn’t have issues with his occipital lobe.

The cerebellum, a common site of abnormality in autism, according to Dr. Woeller, coordinates smooth body movement. Symptoms of problems in the cerebellum include hypotonia, or low muscle tone, balance issues, awkward gait, difficulty with speech articulation, and trouble with planned movements. Alex has had problems with all of these areas, which we have addressed with speech therapy and occupational therapy. However, he still struggles with motor issues, which makes self-care tasks difficult for him. Therefore, Alex likely has inflammation of his cerebellum, evidenced by his difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.

For me, gaining understanding about what each lobe of the brain controls and how inflammation can disrupt specific critical processes helped me realize why certain tasks are so difficult for Alex. As we continue to seek ways to help his nervous system heal, we pray that eventually all those tasks that frustrate him will eventually come easily so that he can reach his full potential.

“O Lord, listen to my cry; give me the discerning mind You promised.” Psalm 119:169


Brain health said...

Hi, the information is really helpful. Where can I find the webinar and how to contact Dr. Woeller?

Pam Byrne said...

Dr. Woeller has a very informative website located at, where you can find more information about his research into autism as well as contact information. Hope this is helpful.
Take care,