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Brain Cortex Structure Similar in Brilliant Scientists and Autism

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Autism: The Way I See It

Brain Cortex Structure Similar in Brilliant Scientists and Autism

by Temple Grandin

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2008


Until recently, researchers had assumed that the brain’s cortex, where information is processed, was not affected by autism. Research by Dr. Manuel Casanova at theUniversityofLouisvilleshows that both people with autism and three deceased brilliant neuroscientists have similarities in the structure of the cortex. One of the brains studied came from Norman Geschwind, who was a leader in understanding how the brain functions.

The grey matter of the cortex is filled with thousands and thousands of long, slender circuits called minicolumns. Each minicolumn is a group of neurons that form the brain’s basic information processing circuit. Both the scientists and people with autism have a larger number of smaller minicolumns per square inch of cortex compared to normal people. To put it in electronic terms, their brains have a greater number of integrated circuits on the “chip.”

The size of the minicolumns gives the brain developmental flexibility to favor either efficient processing of social information or efficient processing of detailed information for complex problem solving. A brain can form either fast, efficient processing of information between different, distant regions or fast efficient processing of information in a local region. Brains with smaller minicolumns have more pathways that interconnect local circuits.

There is a trade-off between having better processing of detailed information and the brain’s ability to handle social functions. Social functions, such as interpreting faces, require long distance connections from the frontal cortex to many other parts of the brain. Brains that have fewer larger minicolumns per square inch have more abundant long-distance connection in the brain’s white matter between different brain regions. However, their brains are poorer at processing detailed visual, numerical or factual information.

There is no black and white dividing line between normal and abnormal brain structure, and there would be a wide range of brain wiring that would be considered normal. Only one of the scientists in this study had true Asperger traits. In more severe autism it is likely that the mini columns become so small, numerous and overcrowded that they start to malfunction. This is likely to be one cause of epilepsy and sensory sensitivity problems.

I have often thought that people on the mild end of the Asperger spectrum may have fit in better years ago than they do today. An eccentric stone mason who designed a cathedral would be admired for his work. A brilliant scientist who preferred the company of mice to humans might have been considered eccentric, but not necessarily labeled socially dysfunctional. In many ways, today’s “always connected” society has put more social demands on people, and a lack of social ability may be seen as more of a handicap than in the past.


Casanova, M. F., Switala, A.E., Trippe, J. and M. Fitzgerald. 2007. “Comparative minicolumnar morphometry of three distinguished scientists.” Autism 2007 Nov; 11(6). (In press).

Casanova M. F. et al. 2006. “Minicolumnar abnormalities in autism.” Acta Neuropathology 112: 287–303.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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