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Henry Markram: Intense World Theory of Autism (6:04 in video)
The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain. Autistics see, hear, feel, think, and remember too much, too deep, and process information too completely. The theory predicts that the autistic child is retreating into a controllable and predictable bubble to protect themselves from the intensity and pain. The theory originated from neuroscientific discoveries on an animal model of autism and was extended by accounting for previous research on autism in humans. It is a unifying theory because it takes into account and explains the many different results and interpretations from a spectrum of studies on autism.
The brain is supercharged because the elementary functional units of the brain are supercharged. These units are called neural microcircuits. Neural microcircuits are the smallest ecosystem of neurons that can support each other to carry out functions. The brain is made up of millions of these units. These microcircuits are hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic. That means that they react and process information much faster and more intensely, they can learn much more and remember much longer, and they can remember things with much greater detail. The Intense World Theory proposes that having such powerful units makes orchestration difficult – like trying to play a piano with a million run-away keys. The microcircuits that are mostly affected will depend on genetics, toxic insults during pregnancy and the kind of environmental exposure after birth. Each autistic child will therefore be unique because different microcircuits are hyper-functional and they dominate the idiosyncratic pattern that emerges.
The theory predicts that there are three factors in the cause of autism; a genetic predisposition, a toxic insult during pregnancy and environmental exposure after birth. Our genes normally switch on an off in a well-timed and precise sequence like the playing of a piece of music throughout life. Autism is a triggered acceleration of this cascade of gene expression during brain development. We believe toxins during pregnancy trigger this acceleration. Many possible genetic mutations can lower the threshold for triggering the accelerated cascade. Environmental exposure that normally accelerates brain development accelerates brain development even further in autistics making the brain too sensitive, too early.
The danger of accelerated brain development is that all the steps needed to complete the trimming down of the connections between neurons is not completed and that some microcircuits that should wait their turn to develop, develop too early and begin to dominate over the other microcircuits driving hyper-preferences, repetitiveness, idiosyncrasies and eventually making unlearning and rehabilitation very difficult.
While it will be difficult to reverse and correct these developmental changes completely, the theory points to many exciting new possibilities for diagnosing, treating and helping autistic children benefit from their unique brain. For example, if the environment can be carefully controlled after birth, then the autistic child could potentially keep the supercharged microcircuits as well as their ability to orchestrate these microcircuits to fully express their genius without the suffering that can come with a supercharged brain.