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NLD and Asperger's Disorder

Joe Palombo

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Chapter 11, pages 205-218

Neurobiology of Social Cognition

Current research on the neurobiology of social behavior and social cognition throws only indirect light on the social impairments of children with NLDs. Most of the research is directed at establishing the linkages between specific brain processes and the representations we have of ourselves, of others, of the interrelationships among others and ourselves and others have among themselves. Major areas of research include the role of the amygdala in social behaviors, the mechanisms that sub serve social and emotional information processing, and the regions involved in the selection of responses to social situations (Adolphs, 2001, 2003a, 2003b; Brothers, 1989, 1996, 1997).1 A different line of investigation is pursued by researchers who are trying to establish linkages between neurobiology, personality development, and personality disorders (Gabbard, 2005; Grigsby & Stevens, 2000).

Furthermore, current research on the neurobiology of sociality may provide answers to some of the questions raised earlier. The lesson we learned from past research in neurobiology is that there are serious limitations to studies of patients with brain lesions (Amaral, Bauman, Cafetanio, Havenex, Mason, et. a1., 2003; Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, Denburg,  Demasio, 1999; Bar-On, Tranel, Denburg, & Bechara, 2003; Mah, Arnold, & Grafman, 2004). One limitation is that examining something that is broken gives only a rough indication of the function that the broken component plays in the overall system. The strategy may be useful in narrowing the possibilities of the function of that component, because it does tell"

us what functions remain intact, but it fails to alert us to the interconnections between what fails to function and the other components of the system. A second limitation, which is even more relevant to this work, is the limitation imposed by the large gap that exists between the study of a developmental disorder and the study of intact systems that have been subsequently damaged. Developmental disorders follow their own path ontogenetically; they seldom affect discrete sectors of the brain. Often they are diffuse, affecting a broadband of systems. Significantly, during development such disorders affect how other systems also function, with the result that the symptoms the patients manifest are not simply those of the dysfunction in that region.

The promise of new technologies, such as computed tomography (CT) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is that these less intrusive methodologies can provide a more comprehensive understanding of what occurs in the brains of our children. This more comprehensive understanding will inevitably expose the greater complexity of the disorders-a complexity perhaps of a higher order then we currently imagine.

1Cozolino (2002) believes that there does not appear to be a unitary module for social cognition within the brain; rather, there are a number of domains of sensory, cognitive, and emotional information processing that come together during normal development that result in social intelligence.