Looking into Ramachandran’s broken mirror

I visited Vilayanur S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego recently, and interviewed him and several members of his lab about their work. Rama and I talked, among other things, about the controversial broken mirror hypothesis, which he and others independently proposed in the early 1990s as an explanation for autism. I’ve written a short article about it for the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), and the transcript of that part of the interview is below. I also wrote an article summarizing the latest findings about the molecular genetics of autism, which were presented in a symposium held at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting last November.

MC: Autism is an umbrella term referring to numerous conditions. Can the broken mirror hypothesis account for all of them?

Ramachandran: Autism is characterized by a specific subset of symptoms. There may be three or four that are lumped together, but by and large it is one syndrome, as good a syndrome as any in neurology. It’s not like dyslexia, where there are half a dozen or a dozen types. With autism, people are debating whether high functioning and low functioning autistics should be lumped together or not. There’s a tendency to group them together rather than saying they’re distinct.

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An interview with Suzanne Corkin

Suzanne Corkin is a professor of behavioural neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked with the famous amnesic patient H.M. for more than 45 years. I interviewed her at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego last month, for this article I wrote for The Dana Foundation. We talked about her work with H.M., and about the project to examine his brain now that he has died, which was partly funded by Dana. The transcript of our conversation is below.

How long did you work with H.M.? Did he ever know who you were? What was he like? 

I started working with H.M. in 1962 when I was a graduate student [with Brenda Milner], and I’m still working with him. In a way he did remember me – he didn’t think I was a stranger, he always thought I was his friend from high school. But he never knew who I really was. He was always very polite, and those who knew him say exactly the same thing. I’ve talked to a few of his classmates, and they all said he was very quiet and kept himself to himself. He may have been like that because of his epilepsy. Perhaps he was afraid of having a seizure and embarrassing himself. But his father was also a quiet person, so maybe he had part of this in his genes.

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