Category Archives: Science

Becoming a mother in the age of neurotoxins: Reflections from the International Meeting for Autism Research 2016

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

Becoming a parent, especially a mother, is one of the biggest responsibilities that one can assume in ones lifetime. Creating and nurturing a new life is an immensely complex task, which requires a lot of dedication, love and also skill and knowledge. Being a mother is hard even when the child is healthy and growing harmoniously, but the challenges of parenthood are multiplied so many times over when the child’s development goes awry, for example when the child has autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

About 1 in 68 children will develop autism, and even though we don’t yet fully understand what causes it, our knowledge about what puts someone at risk for autism is growing each day. For example, we now know that autism is a heritable disorder: a child who has a first degree relative (a parent or sibling) with autism has a 1 in 5 chance of developing autism as well. These children are considered to have a high risk for autism. But the risk for autism is not purely genetic: it is also environmental. There is a growing body of research showing that autism risk is elevated by certain environmental factors such as toxins. In fact, one of the overarching themes at this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) was the issue of environmental causes of autism – what factors in our environment are responsible for elevated autism risk, and can they explain part of the recent rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism?

When thinking about “environment”, we usually conjure up images of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we step on, the buildings we live in, etc. But much of the research on environmental risks for autism focuses instead on the pre-birth environment. In this case the environment is the mother, her body, the nutrients in her blood, the air in her lungs, the function of her various organs, etc. And even though traditionally, the mother’s womb has been praised as being one of the safest places on earth, recent research warns us of lurking dangers. For example the mother’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides at some point during pregnancy was associated with increased risk for autism for the child, with exposure during the third trimester of pregnancy doubling the autism risk. Air pollution has also been associated with increased risk for autism: mothers of autistic children autism were more likely to have lived in homes exposed to high traffic-related air pollution during their pregnancy. Also, mothers who had a metabolic condition such as diabetes, or who were obese during pregnancy, were more likely to have children with autism or developmental delay.

These findings are particularly worrisome given that sales of organic food (food free of pesticides) represents only 4% of the total U.S. food sales and it can be 30%-100% more expensive. More than 46.2 million people in the US live in an area with high levels of air pollution, more than a third of U.S. adults (78.6 million people) are obese, and 9.3% (29.1 million people) have diabetes.

This suggests that becoming a mother has become an even harder endeavor than before: it requires more knowledge and awareness about risk factors, more money to be able to afford avoiding them, and more discipline and a restrictive life-style. We have unfortunately created a world that is cruel to mothers-to-be, a world that places tremendous burdens on their shoulders for ensuring the health of their children. This is a world in which mothers have to worry about the most basic and automatic decisions humans make, such as eating, breathing or simply having a well functioning body. By putting neurotoxins in the food we eat, polluting the air that we breathe and generating societal trends of food consumption that lead to obesity and diabetes, we have created a world that restricts tremendously the lives of women who choose to responsibly become mothers.

Reducing the environmental risk of autism is not just a health issue – it’s also a gender equality issue about the basic rights and freedoms of women. There is an old saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” We women should demand that our extended village, our society and world, takes better care of our children and of us by providing us with food, air and water that won’t put our children at risk for autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

GPS for The Brain

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

I only met The Brain fairly late in my intellectual and self-discovery pursuits, but when I did, it completely changed the way I thought about the world and about myself. I call it The Brain because I feel that the boom in neuroscience research and the media attention it gets has transformed this organ into a cultural phenomenon, into a character that one meets frequently (Google returns 2,430,000,000 results when you search for the word brain), sometimes uncomfortably (not all of us are OK with being reduced to a blob of neurons), sometimes reassuringly (some think that if scientists see it in the brain, it must be real!), a character that haunts our collective imagination. The Brain is here to trick us in sketchy accounts about right hemisphere and left hemisphere people, to genuinely disturb us in reports of new versions of Libet’s experiments on free will, and to wow us in very SF sounding like mind-reading studies. The Brain has become a rock star, and as a true rock star it’s here to rock our world, our imagination, our souls.

For all of us trying to better navigate the intricate paths of the soul, getting to meet and know The Brain can be a transformative journey in itself. It certainly was for me and I wonder if you too resonate with it. For a very long time I had an attitude of respectful indifference towards The Brain. I had a healthy fear of traumatic brain injuries and meningitis from my mom who is a doctor, but at the same time the idea that all the richness of experience, of learning, loving and being could be reduced to patterns of neural firing was more than unintuitive to me, it was downright appalling. It took many years until it dawned on me that the brain was central to the shaping of the landscapes of the mind, of the soul, of that intricate structure that I called my experience and my world-view.

I remember the moment very vividly. I was taking a neuropsychology class and we were discussing a case of Wernicke’s aphasia, reading through a transcript of a conversation with a patient. What struck me was how undisturbed the patient seemed by her inability to understand what others were trying to communicate to her. I remember the professor commenting on this and saying that the patient does not understand that she does not understand. Her language was simply gone. A stroke, a tiny damage to this blob of neurons, and to her, language just stopped existing.

These days I get to spend a great amount of time thinking about The Brain in the context of my research on autism, but I also think about it when attempting to follow the imperative “know thyself”. Here are a three of the many things I learned about myself from The Brain:

  1. Happiness belongs to the brain as well.

I used to believe that meanings were purely in the mind, that they were the results of thought processes and that they followed the logic of a thought process, but then I learned about reward systems in the brain and how differently they create meaning. Back then I was in the bad habit of always making myself predict bad outcomes: being harshly criticized for an idea should I share it, being rejected should I approach someone etc. In my mind I was doing this in order to lower my expectations and be pleasantly surprised whenever something good happened. But that pleasant surprise never came, even when good things did happen, (which was actually most of the time). Why were the meanings of my experiences so negative all the time? Why didn’t they follow the logic of my reasoning? If one looks at the way reward systems work in the brain the picture becomes more clear. In the brain, dopamine gets released whenever a prediction is actually confirmed. That’s how we learn to notice patterns in the world, that’s how we learn to associate actions with their consequences. When a prediction turns out to be wrong, the brain responds with a drop in dopamine levels, which gives rise to a negative emotion. That’s how we learn to reevaluate things. What I was doing to myself was simply cruel. Whenever something negative would happen that would confirm my prediction, my brain would reward that with dopamine. But that wasn’t enough to make me feel happy, since something bad had just happened! Whenever something good happened, my brain would get a dopamine drop to teach me to reevaluate my predictions, which in turn did not allow me to stay happy and enjoy the positive nature of the outcome! So I had to learn to make my brain happy, not just my mind.

  1. Experience should not be taken for granted.

Experience as well, became so much more complex and rich for me when I started thinking of it as the result of a brain process. Every time I climb a mountain now, I climb it in awe not just of the beautiful scenery but also of the amazing ability of my brain to calculate with such precision all the bumps in the trail and carry me to the top unharmed. But even more fundamental than the processes that allow me to navigate the world and enjoy the exhilarating experience of the mountain-top view, I am in awe of the pure existence of this experience. You’ve probably heard of people with hemineglect, who are simply not aware of half of their visual field. So when they draw a clock, for example, they only draw the left side of it. What keeps fascinating me about this condition, just like in the case of Wernicke’s aphasia, is the fact that these people are undisturbed by their condition. It’s not that they cannot see half of their world, but half of their world simply does not exist to them anymore. This has taught me that having an experience, having a world manifested in my mind is something I should not take for granted. Therefore, pondering on how a world can emerge for each of us from the firing of neurons, how this world’s features can be shaped by these firing patterns, attempting to understand consciousness as a state of the brain is to me the most exciting adventure we can embark on.

  1. Neurons deserve respect.

But how can experience emerge from the brain, from a blob of flesh? As I already confessed, this idea seemed to me very confusing and dissatisfying – so what got me fired up about it? It was firing neurons! Or rather an enactment of firing neurons. Several times I played the role of a little firing neuron in a neural network game where people “fire” (wave their hands) according to some pre-established rules. After repeated trials one can get the group of people to blindly wave in ways that correspond to recognizing letters. It’s a very intricate game and getting the network to recognize letters is a difficult process. However, one time, we managed to get our network to read a word – “no”. We didn’t mean to, but the person who was supposed to select the letters to be recognized accidentally picked two instead of one. We couldn’t believe it! Our simulated neural network could read! The idea that something as intelligent as reading can arise from a process so simple as firing according to basic rules taught me to be deeply respectful and mindful of the blob of neurons in my head, of the substrate of my mind and consciousness. This to me means things like eating right and sleeping right, taking care of these precious cells that allow me to read, to think, to love.

Learning how to think and love myself as a brain has been one of the most transformative and exciting experiences of my life. When I look back, I think of my initial indifference towards The Brain as lack of imagination. My husband likes to put it this way: thinking of one’s consciousness as firing patterns in a brain takes a leap of imagination analogous to the one it takes to realize that a cute bunny is simply rearranged grass. But once that leap of imagination is taken the repertoire of self-knowledge increases tenfold. People often say that we need to meet others in order to get to know who we are. I needed to meet this colosal character, The Brain in order to discover and get to love the brain in me.