New Zealand scientist Allan Snyder, director of the Center for the Mind at the University of Sydney, gave a talk to the esteemed Royal Society yesterday where he suggested that it may be possible to "turn on" the amazing mental skills exhibited by some autistic savants. Snyder is best known for controversial claims that transcranial magnetic stimulation, zapping regions of the brain with magnetic pulses, can temporarily enable autistic savant-like intellectual feats. From a press release:
"To do this," says Snyder, "we direct magnetic pulses into the brain, to a specific site called the left anterior temporal lobe, which is near to the left ear. This site has been implicated in individuals who suddenly display autistic savant skills after injury or fronto-temporal lobe dementia." The magnetic pulses are applied over the left anterior temporal lobe for 15 minutes using directed, low frequency rTMS."
During one study conducted by Prof Snyder and his colleagues participants were asked to perform a specific task, before, during, immediately after, and 45 minutes after rTMS treatment, with tasks including drawing a dog, horse or face from memory in one minute, or proofreading a document.
The result was a major change in the drawing ability in four out of the 11 participants, two of these participants also showed a noticeable improvement in their ability to recognise duplicated words in the proofreading task. Their abilities returned to normal within about an hour.
In a similar study, ten out of twelve participants had an improved ability after the rTMS treatment to accurately guess a large number of objects in one and half seconds, an ability which faded after the treatment.