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Proprioception and Autism

On May 21, 2014, the NLM Foundation sponsored a Boston Club meeting titled, ‘Proprioception and Autism.’ The meeting was held at the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation offices in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The group addressed the question of how noisy, overwhelming, or unreliable input from the peripheral nervous system in the early stages of life might disrupt the development of a reliable cortical system for planning and executing movements and behaviors.

There is a growing literature, both philosophical and scientific, on the concept of the ‘embodied mind’, the view that our cognitive frameworks evolve from the early engagement of our muscular and sensory systems with the external world, shaping through trial and error our categories of knowledge and their inter-relationships. Early leaders in the field of autism, such as Ralph Maurer, Anne Donnellan, Martha Leary, and Esther Thelen, argued that a neurological impairment or interference with this process could be the primary cause, if not the lasting signature, of autism. Indeed, self-reports from individuals with autism, particularly those of Donna Williams, include vivid descriptions of sensory systems ‘dropping out’ during social intercourse, generating fear and uncertainty. Despite these insights from neurology, the field of autism research has come to be dominated by psychology and cognitive neuroscience, both because of the subjective ease of observing and classifying behaviors, but also the possibilities of using discrete trials with individuals to correct and modify their outward actions.

Recently, cellular neurobiology has begun to reveal the detailed macro- and micro-circuitry of sensorimotor and neuro-muscular behaviors. Observations on living animals on the time scales of real-time events have allowed investigators to examine the precise mechanisms of sensorimotor control; i.e. how the periphery feeds back to the sensorimotor cortex to reshape the very plans that continuously give rise to the movements underlying observed behavior. This has led prominent neuroscientists to take a fresh look at autism. Henry and Kamila Markram have proposed the ‘intense world’ theory of autism, for example, which posits that signals from the senses overwhelm the small ‘error corrections’ that the cerebellum has evolved to provide, and confuse the inherent learning mechanisms of the associative cortex. Elizabeth Torres and Maria Brincker have looked at autism as being a case of ‘corrupted priors’ and have provided experimental evidence that could provide the basis for new therapies.

Matthew P. Anderson, MD, PhD
Harvard Medical School
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Margaret L. Bauman, MD
Boston University School of Medicine
Integrated Center for Child Development

Gene J. Blatt, PhD
Hussman Institute for Autism
Boston University School of Medicine

New Methods for Behavioral Phenotyping of ASD Model Mice
Sandeep Robert Datta, MD, PhD
Harvard Medical School

Measuring and Understanding Repetitive Motor Movements in Individuals with ASD: A Computational Behavioral Science Approach
Matthew Goodwin, PhD
Northeastern University

Proprioception and Autism: Insights from Research on Self-Calibration
James Lackner, PhD
Brandeis University

Dara Manoach, PhD
Massachusetts General Hospital

Lindsay Oberman, PhD
Bradley Hospital

Wade Regehr, PhD
Harvard Medical School

Caterina Stamoulis, PhD
Harvard Medical School

Using the Plasticity of Peripheral Micro-movements to Characterize and Treat Subtypes of Disorders on a Spectrum
Elizabeth Torres, PhD
Rutgers University

Sam Wang, PhD
Princeton University


The Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, Wellesley, MA