Booz Allen Hamilton Colloquium: "The 'Magical' World of Autism: Autism as a Disorder of Prediction"
Booz Allen Hamilton Distinguished Colloquium in Electrical and Computer Engineering
"The 'Magical' World of Autism: Autism as a Disorder of Prediction"
Professor Pawan Sinha
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Over the past three decades, a rich collection of empirical findings has accumulated in the domain of autism. The data attest to the diversity of traits that constitute the autism phenotype. However, it has been unclear whether subsets of these traits share any underlying causality. This lack of a cohesive conceptualization has complicated the search for broadly effective therapies, diagnostic markers and neural/genetic correlates. I shall describe how theoretical considerations and a review of empirical data lead to the tentative hypothesis that some salient aspects of the autism phenotype may be manifestations of an underlying impairment in predictive abilities. With compromised prediction skills, an individual with autism inhabits a seemingly ‘magical’ world where events occur unexpectedly and without cause. Immersion in such a capricious environment can prove overwhelming and compromise one’s ability to effectively interact with it. We shall consider the strengths and weaknesses of this hypothesis and also some experimental studies that it has motivated.
Pawan Sinha is a tenured full-professor of computational and visual neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He received his undergraduate degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi and his Masters and doctoral degrees from the Department of Computer Science at MIT. Using a combination of experimental and computational modeling techniques, research in Prof. Sinha’s laboratory focuses on understanding how the human brain learns to recognize objects through visual experience and how objects are encoded in memory. Prof. Sinha’s experimental work on these issues involves studying healthy individuals and those with neurological disorders such as autism. The goal is not only to derive clues regarding the nature and development of high-level visual skills, but also to create better therapeutic routines to help children overcome visual impairments. Prof. Sinha founded Project Prakash in 2005 with the twin goals of providing treatment to children with disabilities and also understanding mechanisms of learning and plasticity in the brain. Project Prakash,
which is a collaboration between MIT researchers and ophthalmologists in India, has provided insights into some of the most fundamental questions about brain function while also transforming the lives of many blind children by bringing them the gift of sight.