Closer to Understanding Savant Syndrome

Approximately 50% of all people with “Savant syndrome,” a rare condition where a person displays remarkable genius in one specific area, have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With most of the other half being related to a brain injury or other acquired condition, it is natural to make the link between autism and savant syndrome.

The movie “Rain Man” brought autistic savants to the mainstream consciousness back in 1988. Since then, so much research has gone into uncovering the possible causes of both autism and savant syndrome. It now seems that rather than a rare symptom of autism, savant syndrome may simply occur along side autism, with the same root causes and similar development.

The current understanding of what happens in the brain of a savant is that when damage occurs in the left brain hemisphere, home to higher-level memory circuits, other parts of the brain step up to compensate and rewire. This rewiring can result in the release of previously dormant capacity for memory. Whether artistic, musical, spatial, or mathematical, the common thread between these amazing savant abilities is uncanny memory in one very specific area.

We’ve reported on several recent studies on the autistic brain that conclude autism can be caused by the same process of rewiring, resulting in increased brain plasticity and synaptic connections.  This may be in response to mutated RNA that could create the need to rewire, resulting in autism, savant syndrome, or both.

Savant syndrome is very rare. Almost every case of congenital (not acquired later in life) savant syndrome occurs in an individual with some form of autism. Whether the autism causes the savant syndrome, or the two occur concurrently remains to be seen, but the amazing abilities of the autistic savant will no doubt continue to captivate and inspire us for generations to come.

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