In September, I participated in a study at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) measuring brain plasticity in people with Asperger's (the full name of the study is 'Stabilizing Neuroplasticity in Adults with Asperger Disorder Using Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: A pilot study'). I had first heard about rTMS on a news segment describing its use in treating treatment-resistant depression. I asked my doctor about it, hoping that I could get into a clinical study going on at CAMH. I was excluded due to a family history of epilepsy (very disappointing), but I was offered the chance to get in on a similar study aimed at those on the spectrum. In July I went to Toronto for the screening process, which was basically just an IQ test.
The objective of the study is to compare brain cortical plasticity between neurotypical adults and adults with Asperger's. The theory, as I understand it, is that Aspies have hyperplastic brains, and with rTMS certain areas thought to be responsible for the perceived negative symptoms can be toned-down.
For three weeks in September I travelled to Toronto, for a total of four sessions. For the first session, we started with finding the right spot in my motor cortex to make my thumb (hooked up to electrodes) twitch 5 times out of 10 when hit with theta burst stimulation (TBS) to get my baseline. The TBS was delivered via a paddle with a figure-8 coil pressed onto my head. It made a CLACK! sound (like hockey sticks slapping together) when it fired, and made me blink, the muscle under my left eye twitch, and my jaw to move up and to the left, making my teeth smash together (along with the thumb twitch). After biting my lip during one of the bursts, I held my mouth open for all the following hits. After finding the right spot and marking my scalp with a bright pink marker, Dr. Desarkar, the head investigator, used either intermittent TBS or continuous TBS (I don't remember) to activate my motor cortex. This made my jaw move up and down rapid fire. I must have looked quite silly sitting there with my mouth open, chewing on nothing but air. The last part of this session involved the application of 10 hits of TBS in 5-minute intervals, up to 105 minutes after the activation. The reaction in my thumb was recorded on a computer. From what I could tell, the reactions were bigger, tapering off until eventually going back to the baseline we took at the beginning.
The second session, the following week, was fairly similar to the first, except that instead of activating, the TBS was used to inhibit. Again, from what I could tell from the computer screen, and the doctor's reactions, my thumb twitches were smaller, and gradually worked their way back up to the baseline.
The third session, the week after that, I received sham rTMS. I was both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed in that I was curious what it would do to me, if anything. I was relieved because I was afraid that if it did improve my social skills, it would so at the cost of my intelligence or memory. This would almost definitely not happen, especially after only one session, but I worried about it anyway. Even though I wasn't receiving rTMS, I still had to come in, lie down, and have the magnetic coil placed on my head (just at a 90 degree angle so the burst shot away from my brain) for a little over an hour, the machine clicking the whole time. No measurements were taken. Quite boring. I had trouble staying awake.
The final session occurred the next day. It was a repeat of the first session: activation (chosen at random).
It was all very interesting, though I've forgotten a bit, and probably got a number of things mixed up; too many acronyms. But it was worth the anxiety of travelling to Toronto by bus (2 things I dislike), and not just because I got paid for my participation, and had my travel expenses covered. I may do another similar study in November or December.