Temple Grandin Has a Large Head for Saving Animals


Few have done as much for the welfare of farm animals and Humane Heartland as Temple Grandin, special advisor to the American Humane Assocation. She may also be the most famous autistic person on the planet, particularly since the award winning 2010 biopic movie, “Temple Grandin” (starring Claire Danes).

No question, Grandin has exception intelligence and spatial memory. It turns out her brain has a host of structural and functional differences compared with the brains of members of a control group, according to a presentation Saturday October 13 at the 2012 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in New Orleans.

Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, is an outspoken advocate for autism research and awareness. She is known as a ‘savant,’ or a person who shows characteristic social deficits of autism and yet also has some exceptional abilities. For example, she has extremely sharp visual acuity.

She can aslo visualize what might be in detail which most of us can’t….for example, how to move cattle uniquely from one place to another. She also can relate to animals in what she herself has called a “special” way, through non-verbal cues.

You know how they say – when you walk into a wall or do something silly, or make a decision that positively changes your business – they oughta study your brain for science. Well, Grandin’s was studied. This was the first study to take a close look at Grandin’s brain, or for that matter one of the first studies to better understand the brains of savants.

Researchers at several institutions gave Grandin a slew of psychological tests and scanned her brain using several imaging technologies. She was 63 years old at the time of the scans.

Grandin’s brain volume is significantly larger than that of three neurotypical controls matched on age, sex and handedness. Some children with autism have abnormally large brains, though researchers are still working out how head and brain size changes across development and exactly how size may (or may not) be significant. Still, relatively little is actually known about human brains.

Grandin’s lateral ventricles, the chambers that hold cerebrospinal fluid, are skewed in size so that the left one is much larger than the right.

On both sides of her brain, Grandin has an abnormally large amygdala, a deep brain region that processes emotion. Her brain also shows differences in white matter, those bundles of nerve fibers that connect one region to another. The volume of white matter on the left side of her brain is higher than than those in the control group, according to the study.

Using diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers traced white-matter connections in Grandin’s brain. They found what the researchers call “enhanced” connections — defined by several measures including the fractional anisotropy, or integrity, of the fibers — in the left precuneus, a region involved in episodic memory and visuospatial processing.

Grandin also has enhanced white matter in the left inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, which connects the frontal and occipital lobes, this may explain her keen visual abilities, the researchers say.

Grandin also has some “compromised,” or weak, connections, defined in part by decreased integrity of the fibers. She has a weak left inferior frontal gyrus, for example, which includes the Broca’s area for language. She also shows compromised connections in the right fusiform gyrus, a brain region involved in processing faces.

Though, Grandin received exceptionally high scores on several psychological assessments, including tests of spatial reasoning, spelling and reading. She has a perfect score on Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices, which assesses nonverbal intelligence. Her weakest skill is verbal working memory.

Is this true for most people with autism, or most savants? Scientists aren’t sure. The results do make sense considering what autistic savants have in common with one another.

Taken together, these findings agree with Grandin’s own reflections of her abilities. As she wrote in her book Thinking in Pictures “When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”