The "Primitive Brain Dysfunction" Theory of Autism: The Superior Colliculus Role
Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience
A better understanding of the pathogenesis of autism will help clarify our conception of the complexity of normal brain development. The crucial deficit may lie in the postnatal changes that vision produces in the brainstem nuclei during early life. The superior colliculus is the primary brainstem visual center. Although difficult to examine in humans with present techniques, it is known to support behaviors essential for every vertebrate to survive, such as the ability to pay attention to
... ant stimuli and to produce automatic motor responses based on sensory input. From birth to death, it acts as a brain sentinel that influences basic aspects of our behavior. It is the main brainstem hub that lies between the environment and the rest of the higher neural system, making continuous, implicit decisions about where to direct our attention. The conserved cortex-like organization of the superior colliculus in all vertebrates allows the early appearance of primitive emotionally-related behaviors essential for survival. It contains first-line specialized neurons enabling the detection and tracking of faces and movements from birth. During development, it also sends the appropriate impulses to help shape brain areas necessary for social-communicative abilities. These abilities require the analysis of numerous variables, such as the simultaneous evaluation of incoming information sustained by separate brain networks (visual, auditory and sensory-motor, social, emotional, etc.), and predictive capabilities which compare present events to previous experiences and possible responses. These critical aspects of decision-making allow us to evaluate the impact that our response or behavior may provoke in others. The purpose of this review is to show that several enigmas about the complexity of autism might be explained by disruptions of collicular and brainstem functions. The results of two separate lines of investigation: 1. the cognitive, etiologic, and pathogenic aspects of autism on one hand, and two. the functional anatomy of the colliculus on the other, are considered in order to bridge the gap between basic brain science and clinical studies and to promote future research in this unexplored area.