Uta Frith, Ph.D.
M.I.N.D. Institute Distinguished Lecturer Series: February 8, 2006
Uta Frith, Ph.D., is Professor in Cognitive Development at the University of London and Deputy Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Her research focuses on the developmental disorders of autism and dyslexia. In both fields she has employed a unique approach that combines cognitive neuropsychological and developmental methods to pioneer and contribute to the major theories explaining these disorders. She has proposed and tested two of the main theories of autism, mindblindness and central coherence. Further, Frith has pioneered and tested the phonological theory in longitudinal and cross-language studies in dyslexia and has shown that a phonological deficit is persistent and universal. Her aim is to relate the underlying cognitive causes of these disorders to specific brain systems. Frith studied experimental psychology at the Universität des Saarlandes, Saarbrücken, and subsequently trained in clinical psychology at the University of London's Institute of Psychiatry. Since completing her Ph.D. on autism in 1968, she has worked as a scientist funded by the Medical Research Council.
Autism and the Brain’s Theory of Mind (4 pm)
Impairments in social communication are the hallmark of autism spectrum disorders. Yet, the nature of these impairments, which can range from severe to mild, is hard to define. Thus, many different aspects of social interaction appear to be affected, resulting in a great deal of heterogeneity in the clinical picture. These aspects include poor emotion processing, poor imitation, poor verbal and non-verbal communication, poor face processing, poor gaze control, and poor language comprehension. One thread that runs through these impairments is what has been termed “mindblindness” or “lack of theory of mind”. By this is meant the ability to attribute mental states to other people, or mentalizing for short. Mentalizing is not an intangible and highly sophisticated conscious process. Instead it is a cognitive capacity that is automatically triggered by specific stimuli, such as the movement of other agents, the orientation of eye gaze, or the form and content of speech. Mentalizing has probably evolved from the ability to understand others’ actions and intentions and the necessity to react quickly to conspecifics and other creatures, who could be predators or prey. This mechanism has an identifiable basis in the brain and develops rapidly in early childhood. It enables human beings to read each other’s minds - in a manner of speaking, and to predict remarkably well what others are going to do next. Behavioural studies over the last twenty years have shown that mentalizing is severely delayed or absent in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. This cognitive deficit may explain a number of their social impairments, such as persistent social naivety. Brain imaging studies have shown that in high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders the brain’s mentalizing system shows reduced activation and weaker connection between its components.
How Cognitive Theories Can Help Us Explain Autism (6 pm)
Should autism researchers focus solely on identifying the ultimate biological causes of autism? Researchers must also work towards understanding what kind of thing autism is. What does it mean for an individual to have autistic disorder? Knowing the causes of the disorder cannot answer this question. We will only understand what autism is when we look at a whole causal chain of step-by-step explanations. This causal chain needs to be built by connecting biology and behaviour. The middle ground between biology and behaviour is cognition. This middle ground helps us to develop theories that explain signs and symptoms of autism by rigorously tested experiments, and thus to build vital links in the long chain of causes. Three cognitive theories are currently trying to explain the social and non-social features of autism, the difficulties and strengths. One proposal is that individuals with autism suffer from executive dysfunction, which might explain their rigidity and repetitive behaviour patterns, as well as many of their practical difficulties in everyday life. Another proposal, aimed at explaining the typically uneven profile of intellectual functioning and the phenomenon of savant skills, is that of a detail-focussed processing style. This is often referred to as “weak central coherence”. A third theory is targeted at the social and communication impairments and is often referred to as “mindblindness”. I will suggest that these proposals are complementary rather than contradictory, and that they help us to refine the phenotype of autism so that it has a better chance to be mapped to the genotype.