When Brain Cells Gossip
Say you're talking to a coworker you're close to, and you tell them something personal, private, and sensitive, something meant only to be heard by them.
But you're overheard by another coworker in the next cubicle. Out of context, they misunderstand and spread gossip about what they thought they heard. This creates problems for you in the office.
Odd as it may sound, there's evidence that the autistic brain may be doing the same thing. The brain cells are gossiping.
Synapses and Neurotransmitters
First, I'll need to give a little bit of background about how neurons (brain cells) talk to each other.
The signals passing from one end of a neuron to the other are electrical signals. However, when the signal wants to pass from neuron to another, that electrical signal doesn't just jump from one neuron to the next.
Rather, the electrical signal is converted by chemical machinery in the neuron into a chemical signal, and these neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) cross a gap between the neurons called the synapse. On the other side of the synapse, the second neuron receives that neurotransmitter and more chemical machinery converts the chemical signal back into an electrical signal.
The Neuron Takes a Poll
However, just because a neuron gets a signal doesn't mean it just passes the signal along.
Each neuron has multiple other neurons from which it receives signals. The neuron will effectively take a poll of the different neurons it receives signals from. If it receives enough "yes" votes within a certain period of time, it will activate, and send its signal on to other neurons.
There are factors affecting how the vote goes. The votes of some neurons can carry more weight than others, and sometimes those votes are "no", depending on the type of neuron they're coming from. "No" votes means it will take more "yes" votes to activate the nerve. And stimulants or sedatives can affect how much weight a vote has. Other drugs can affect the neuron's ability to send or receive the signals. This voting system is called action potential.
"How may I direct your call?"
Like in a busy office, the neurons in the brain are close together, and therefore so are the synapses. It's important that the neurotransmitters that a synapse sends out are only received by the other end of that synapse and the neuron they were intended for.
But the brain is absolutely packed with neurons and synapses, There are a billion synapses per cubic millimeter of the brain. Far more dense than even the most cramped office. How does the brain make sure the other synapses don't get the neurotransmitters by mistake?
Thankfully, the brain has mechanisms to help control the neurotransmitters to make sure they don't go astray. Some of them will vacuum the neurotransmitters back up into the neuron that send them. Others break down the neurotransmitters so that they stop working.
My understanding of all of this has been greatly aided by a book I'm currently reading - Connectome by Sebastian Seung. I highly recommend it for its simple and clear explanation of how this all works.
When Things Go Wrong
But what happens when those neurotransmitters do go astray? What happens if the vacuums or breakers aren't working properly?
Both of these things can happen in autism.
Specifically with dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, it has been found there is a genetic defect in the dopamine vacuum, reversing it and turning that vacuum into a leaf blower, putting the dopamine out into the system instead of cleaning it up.
Dopamine can also be converted into norepinephrine, and then adrenaline, the two neurotransmitters/hormones that cause the fight-or-flight response. Because of the defect, all three can be floating around loose in the brain, creating an overactive stress response.
Zinc can correct the genetic defect with the dopamine vacuum and help it work normally again. However, autism tends to come with a zinc deficiency.
To make matters worse, the enzyme responsible for breaking down all three of these (dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine) needs magnesium to help it work. But autism can also tends to come with a magnesium deficiency. That deficiency makes it harder for the enzyme to work and clean them out properly.
How It Feels
So what does it feel like when the brain cells are gossiping?
When my brain responds, it often over-responds. It overreacts to thoughts, feelings, sensations, or things going on around me. It blows things out of proportion, making them a much bigger deal than they need to.
I think it's also why my brain makes connections between thoughts and ideas so easily. It can make for some great creative thinking, but it can also be really distracting. When a word, phrase, or even a syllable remind me of something totally unrelated, my mind can start to wander really fast. It can also bring up uncomfortable or traumatic memories that I have to work to push away.
More Research is Needed
At this point, I must confess that I don't currently have any research or studies that can back up my main claim here. My theory is that nearby nerve cells are getting signals that they weren't intended to receive. There is evidence for the dopamine vacuum defect, and the inefficient enzyme that cleans up those neurotransmitters, but it has not yet been shown that they cause the signals from nerves to be mistakenly received by other neurons. That is, for now, just a theory of mine.
While we have the technology to see activity in different parts of the brain, the technology is not currently good enough to see the firing of individual neurons. I asked a neuroscientist and was told that the best that can be done with current means is to record the activity of several hundred at a time. Further technological development is needed before evidence can be found for my theory.
However, my theory is not entirely without evidence showing that it may be the case. A recent study done by researchers has succeeded in doing brain scans of children with severe autism (I dislike the article calling it "low-functioning").
Their research found "general overconnectivity [that] may represent overall poor differentiation and segmentation of brain regions", meaning that too much of the brain is responding to any given stimulus, possibly as a result of nerve signals being received by neurons they weren't intended for, as I've theorized.
I'm still learning about what implications that this brain cell gossip may have on the brain as a whole.
I hardly have all the answers yet, so I'm grateful to you for reading the little glimmers of light I have to offer.