Friday, May 30, 2008

Another participant's view of TMS

I've been telling you about the TMS project for a little while now. So far, all you've heard is my side of the story. Tonight I'd like to share (with permission) the account of one of the other participants in the study. I found it quite moving. I've posted it just as I received it . . . .

Communicating with a Different Brain

Imagine this.

When you are born, you're given a pair of glasses to wear. These are special glasses, which have a patch totally covering one eye. The other eye has the peripheral field of view blocked, so that you have a very narrow field of view. You put these glasses on as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, and take them off the last thing before you close your eyes in the evening.

You also have a little bit of cotton stuffed in your ears, so that you can't hear things quite clearly. As you grow up, your experience is one of seeing a small field of view in just two dimensions. Since you don't know of any other way of seeing, you think that you can see things quite well. You think that everybody sees in this way.

As you interact with other people, you may notice that some people may appear to see differently than you do, or hear things differently. You find that you are very good at focusing in on the details of the small field of vision that you have available to you. You may find it hard to understand why other people don't see the details. When you're with a group of people, it may be hard to follow the conversation, because you don't quite hear clearly. It may also be hard to look from person-to-person as quickly as the conversation moves, since you have such a narrow field of view. It can be quite confusing. You may miss things in conversation.

Imagine what it would be like if you could take the glasses off and all of a sudden see in three dimensions, and notice peripherally what was going on. Imagine what it would be like if you could take the cotton out of your ears, and hear things more clearly.

There are researchers in Boston who have found a way to stimulate the brain in ways which opens up the narrow field of view, and enables one to hear communication more clearly. They are currently working on preliminary studies using noninvasive brain stimulation to influence communication, and I recently participated in a study which was quite remarkable in showing me how my brain is wired.

I wanted to share my experience, in hopes that other people may be interested in participating in these studies, which may prove very helpful in treating communication difficulties.

Those of us participating in the study were given several communication tests prior to and after the stimulation sessions. The tasks included reading sentences, speaking them out loud, and evaluating the sentences which someone speaks aloud. My experience of communication before and after the brain stimulation was remarkably different.

As we went through the different phases of simulation, I became aware that my reading had been rote initially, and I wasn't getting the full meaning out of what I had been reading. After the brain was stimulated, I started getting more meaning from the sentences. At one point, I was also able to understand the emotional content of sentences, which I had not been aware of previously. It really felt like I had been seeing in two dimensions, and could now see in three dimensions.

After the final simulation, I realized that my normal way of communicating while reading aloud involves a complex mental process, which goes on subconsciously. This involves reading the sentence, deciding what emotion it is supposed to convey, and then deciding how that needs to sound in my voice before I speak. However, after the stimulation session, I was able to understand the emotional content, and speak the sentences with natural emotion in my voice, without having to do any mental processing about it.

I also noticed a difference in the way I saw the woman who was reading sentences. Initially, I focused in on the content of her words, and didn't see the larger picture. As I went through the stimulation sessions, I started noticing more of the larger picture, and noticed what was going on besides the exact content of her words. I also started to be able to pick out sentences which I had taken literally when I first heard them, and was able to understand meanings of the sentences other than a literal interpretation.

The changes in my communication after the stimulation could be described as similar to the difference between looking at things in three dimensions rather than two dimensions, or seeing things in color, rather than black and white. I don't know if this is accurate or not, but it seems to me that this difference in brain function could account for some of the differences in communication between people that have Asperger's and neurotypicals.

It was quite amazing to be able to feel the range of emotional content of communication immediately after the stimulation was done. It was also sad to lose that once the effects wore off. Hopefully, the researchers will find ways to stimulate the brain so that the brain will be able to continue to function with a broader field of view, and communication can increase in meaning and depth.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A high school dropout no more . . .

This weekend I returned to Houston for a special engagement. The Monarch School, a place I’ve written about before, decided to give me an honorary high school diploma. There were ten kids in the graduating class, and me. In this shot, we're all lining up for the official photo:

Here I am, with the leadership of the school, as a newly minted graduate:

Each of the kids had done a senior project. One made a park bench for the new campus. Another wrote poetry. Several did art. One did a special education project. One wrote an essay about his mom and her struggles coming to America and raising him. Two kids promised to return to school after graduation and help with programs, like sports.

And one kid, in a wonderful display of Aspergian eccentricity, made a multi-pane display for school yearbooks. As he said, it’s configured to be free-standing, hung from a wall, or used as an ornamental door.

I wished I had a project of my own to tell them about.

It was a remarkable display that showed why Monarch is unique, and shows the benefits of small schools in general.

After graduation, there was time for a trip to the Ship Channel, the highlight of any trip to Houston. The best place to see the channel is east of town, by the Battleship monument. If you go all the way to the end of the road you'll reach the Lynchburg Ferry, which you can ride for free till the service ends at dark.

There are two ferries, which swap sides every 15 minutes or so. I rode the William P Hobby. The photo above shows the Ross S Sterling as we meet mid-channel.

Here are some pictures of the traffic, which I watched till dusk. The towboat Elizabeth Bleiler passed close by, with two barges:

A lone biker rode watched the channel from his hog:

As the sun began to set, the tanker Stolt Creativity headed out to sea. Stolt Creativity is a 37,000 ton tanker that carries specialty petroleum products.

The light was too low to get the name on this one, my last tanker of the evening:

The refineries glittered like gold as the lights winked on at dusk:

After that, I drove back to the Galleria for dinner, where I encountered this van in the garage. The name truly says it all.

They’re online, for real, at

I’ve been scratching a bit since dinner.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A visit to the TMS lab, and some questions answered

I’ve started getting quite a few questions about the TMS work I’m participating in at Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s lab in Boston I’m going to answer a few of them here. Feel free to ask your own questions in the comments. I’ll try to answer, and I’ll run any technical or medical questions past Alvaro, Shirley, and the other doctors to make sure I have the facts straight.

What is TMS?

As we think, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals pass through our nerves to work our muscles, and the pass within our brains to create our thoughts and memories. All our nerves work on electricity – nerves in our eyes, ears, and even our nose generate electrical signals that our brain interprets and processes.

TMS uses the principle of electromagnetic induction to add its own signal to the signals running along our neural pathways. TMS is very precise, so we can aim it at fairly specific paths. For example, we can use TMS to stimulate one finger in the hand. By applying TMS pulses to the part of the brain that controls it, we can make the finger twitch.

These pulses can augment the function of a brain area, or they can inhibit it. So you might say they allow us to “speed up” or “slow down” small parts of the brain. The TMS equipment we’re using in this work focuses on a bit less than 1% of the brain mass.

So how could it help people with autism?

Shirley and Alvaro developed a theory that some parts of the autistic mind are over-active, and those overactive parts sort of overwhelm the other parts. By “slowing down” the over-active areas they hoped to bring about an improvement in overall function.

In this first study, several areas were targeted over four sessions.

So far, my results look very, very promising. Really exciting stuff. We also have positive initial results from a few others in the study. But it’s too soon to say more – we need to analyze the data and run more experiments.

Now, if I may, I’d like to show you what it looks like. Meet Shirley Fecteau, PhD, the leader of this particular study. She’s an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a part of Dr. Pascual-Leone’s team at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Shirley is French-Canadian. One of the things I've noticed is that people have come from all over the world to work in these Harvard programs. They really do get the best and the brightest from all over.

In this image you can see me getting TMS to the right front of my brain.

She's holding the coil against the side of my head. The black headband has some targets on it that allow two computer cameras on the wall to track my head so she can keep the coil in the right spot. You’ll notice I have a blank expression. That’s because the TMS induces an almost meditative state in me. The picture you see is not a setup, it’s real TMS.

This next shot shows a bit more of the setup. You can see the cameras on the wall, looking down at the chair. Those cameras feed the computer below, which tells Shirley where to hold the TMS coil. Fellow Aspergian Michael Wilcox is in the chair, and he's going to write about his TMS experience on his own site, which is The fellow with the camera is filming is for a Canadian Television documentary based upon Dr. Norman Doidge's book The Brain That Changes Itself. Dr. Doidge and the crew came to see us 2 weeks ago and I took the chance to shoot a bunch of photos.

In this photo, you can see the brain map and the targets for stimulation.

The upper right view has some small colored dots . . . those are the target areas. The pair of cameras on the wall match points on my face with the MRI images to show them where to place the TMS coil.

The crosshairs on the left show the coil (the black) dot with the target area being the X

This shot shows the actual TMS machine:

Here's a better view of the TMS coil, on my son Cubby's head:

The hose coming out of the coil is an air line, to pass air through the coil to cool it. The coil is a figure 8 of wire in the blue plastic casing.

And a few more questions before I go . . .

Does TMS damage or kill brain cells?

In my previous post, I described some pretty dramatic effects from TMS. Someone on the site asked if those vivid images were produced by "millions of neurons dying off."

TMS does not injure or kill brain cells. In this study, we are using what's called functional MRI imagery to watch brain activity before, after, and even during TMS. We can see areas become less active, or more active, and we see them return to their pre-TMS states. We can say with certainty that TMS is not killing brain cells.

We are able to watch the areas of the brain that we stimulate change and evolve.

In addition, Alvaro and other neuroscientists have observed the effects of TMS during open-brain surgical procedures in patients. TMS alters the signals passed through the neurons. It does not burn them out.

Is TMS like ECT, electro convulsive or shock treatment?

Not really. It's only similar in that they are both electrical processes. To use an analogy, TMS is like touching your fingers across the terminals of a AA battery. ECT is like throwing a cable over a high-tension electric powerline. Needless to say, both are electrical experiences but their effect on the person is drastically differrent.

TMS is a low-energy and highly focused procedure that's aimed at less than 1% of the brain mass. It's painless and in fact induces something of a tranquil state while it's being done. For me, TMS has produced a lasting elevation of mood and made me somewhat calmer overall.

ECT, on the other hand, is a very violent, high energy jolt to the whole brain. It induces seizures and it's so painful that people must be under general anesthesia. As you can see, none of that happens with TMS.

I'm aware that any tool that reaches into the brain and alters the way we think is scary. I guess it's not as scary for me because I have a good understanding of the electronic principles, and I'm seeing it unfold firsthand. And it's also exciting. The results I am seeing are truly like science fiction come to life.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Brain plasticity in action

A few posts back, I told you I was beginning a research collaboration with the neuroscientists at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In the study, we are focusing magnetic energy into my brain (I am one of several volunteers) in hopes of inducing brain plasticity.

I am still gathering my thoughts on the TMS work, but I will say this . . . the results I have seen are mind-boggling. It’s like science fiction, but for real. I don’t want to say too much more until I have test results to back up my words. But stay tuned . . . I assure you, it will be worth the short wait.

As you wait, keep in mind that I am personally experiencing this. This is not a thirdhand interpretation. Right now, I’d like to quote a letter I recently sent to Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director of the TMS program, and Shirley Fecteau, PhD, who’s running the current investigation. This experience occurred right after a TMS session:

Dear Alvaro and Shirley,

Today, your TMS gave me back something I did not know I had lost. Suddenly, I can see music again. Let me explain. Over the past 20-some years, I thought music had lost some of its richness; some color, but I accepted that as the gradual decline of my ears with increased age. Kind of crummy, but there it is.

Tonight, driving home, I became bored and switched on my iPod. I've got it loaded with the music I loved best, back when I did music. Most of my songs are original live recordings, the real thing, errors, mistakes, and all. Not the polished stuff that comes out of the studio. I switched it on to Diana Ross, recorded live in Las Vegas. I listened absently for a few minutes, and suddenly realized something was different. I turned up the volume a bit. It took a moment for me to get it, and then it hit me right between the eyes.

I could see the music. Again.

I listened some more, and realized it was true . . . I could “see” the voices, the microphones, the costumes glittering in the light; I could see the backup singers, and I could pick out the instruments out one by one. I heard her hit a triangle, and I could see it in my mind, clear as day, held up by the mike as she rang it. I could hear the emotions in her voice, and I could sense happy and sad and excited and tired.

I saw her in my mind, standing by the stage with me 30 years ago as we watched the band. I could see the instruments and hear them play, individually or within the fabric of the song. I could reach into the songs, and hold the individual bits and pieces in my hand.

Even the little stuff . . . the wind chimes; the bells; and the noises on the stage. I saw them all, just as clear as day, like watching a video. I could hear the echo as the vocals kicked back off the rear walls of the arena and came back into the stage mikes. I could see the crowds below. It was alive, and it kept changing.

A minute later, I listened to Eddie Holman announce his song, Hey There Lonely Girl in a hall in New Jersey, and I could see him speak. I didn't see him, exactly, but I saw my friend Willard Cofield, a prominent black Baptist pastor, who embodies something of his voice and expression. I could hear and feel the joy in his expressions as he shouted into the mike at the end of the song, "thank you for 33 years, three sons, and six grandchildren!"

It felt just like being there, with all the power of the original performance.

As I listened to three black musicians talking between songs, I could see my friends – Bobby Hartsfield and Seabreeze, standing outside my shop by their Harleys, and I saw the same expressions on their faces that I heard from the guys on stage. It’s like I could see the feelings of the guys on stage and link it to the “closest match” in people I knew; in the faces of my friends. An old recording transposed into the setting of Springfield, Massachusetts, yesterday. But not the music. The facial expressions and feelings. Strange, but not strange.

I listened to McFadden & Whitehead sing a song they wrote for Marvin Gaye, and I realized I could pick out the individual keyboard instruments. I could see them in my mind, too, three stacked keyboards with a fourth – a piano – to the side I saw the Korg on top and an old Hammond B3 on the bottom. I could see the keyboard player walking one hand along the Korg and the other on the B3, and then I could switch and follow the bass guitar.

I could pull them out of the music just like being in the studio, when I’d put on the headphones and hit the monitor button on the console. When you’re in a recording studio, making a record, you record every instrument and voice on its own track, so you can control it. That’s what I could do in my mind – pull the individual voices and instruments out of the background. But I did it without electronics. I had a digital processing suite in my mind, 20 years before they were invented.

Words cannot express the richness of the material I could hear. I listened to Tavares come on stage. Tavares is a group of brothers; they played the Boston club circuit when I started out and then made it big when they recorded the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever with the BeeGees. I could hear them passing the vocal parts back and forth as they opened Penny for Your Thoughts; I “heard” the subtext of the show. Now, that particular recording of Tavares turned to shit on the next song as the PA system picked up an arrhythmic "pop-pop" noise that was totally out of sync with the music.

Yesterday, that "pop" was so objectionable, I'd have skipped their song Heaven, but tonight I played it through. And I found I could lock onto each voice, and the instruments in back, one by one. And I could filter the pop right out with my mind. It was like I had a noise cancellation program running in my head.

These are not new abilities. Do you remember how I said I could see the music when I was young? This is what I saw and felt. It's faded away over the years, and I guess I didn't know it was gone. Until now. Experiencing its return is to say the least, stunning. Will it last? I guess time will tell.

That ability is what took me to the top of the world, making musical electronics, 30 years ago.

A few weeks ago, I said I thought I'd lost many of my old technical abilities as I developed new skills; new paths. You told me you suspected the old abilities I thought were lost were still there, dormant in my mind.

Well, today you woke them up.