Interesting article by Kawakubo et al correlating the level of hemoglobin in the prefrontal cortex during a letter fluency task using near infrared spectroscopy. Via twin studies autism is already believed to have a genetic aspect but this kind of dose-dependent effect is illuminating nonetheless. Here’s the meaty image, and note that the fluency task started at t = 30 s:
The correlation was only significant before Bonferonni correction, but it seems fair to speculate on a few of the patterns regardless. Based on the progression from children to adults, more of the prefrontal cortex begins to be recruited for this cognitive task in control subjects, as indicated by higher levels of oxygenated hemoglobin, but not in individuals with autistic spectrum disorders. Moreover, siblings of individuals with ASD are on average more similar to those with ASD than control subjects are, further indicating the genetic basis of ASD.
In Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen argues that autism represents a different cognitive style which has some benefits to be exploited. Although “moderating social behavior” and “decision making” are in some ways clearly useful byproducts of the prefrontal cortex, there are some other contexts in which these attributes might not be as favorable. That might include scientific discovery, wherein personal ambitions and ties to ones colleagues should be secondary to the quest for the underlying reality.
Kawakubo Y, Kuwabara H, Watanabe K-i, Minowa M, Someya T, et al. (2009) Impaired Prefrontal Hemodynamic Maturation in Autism and Unaffected Siblings. PLoS ONE 4(9): e6881. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006881