TMS Advances

Confronting Asperger Syndrome with TMS

July 8, 2019

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Because transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is producing such revolutionary results in treating depression, many researchers suspect that it could be similarly effective in helping people with other cognitive conditions.

In America, TMS is currently only FDA-approved to treat major depressive disorder, but in Europe, TMS is used to treat a variety of conditions, including obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and nicotine addiction.     

Research suggests that TMS may also be effective in treating the condition formerly known as Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s.

Unlike depression, Asperger’s, now generalized to autism spectrum disorder, does not necessarily need to be “cured,” as it is not inherently negative. That being said, people with Asperger’s may still be able to benefit from TMS, especially in regard to interpreting emotions and connecting with others.

Continue reading to find out more about:

  • Asperger’s, its background, and what it means to have it
  • What TMS is, and how it works
  • An example of how TMS has benefited someone with Asperger’s

More About Asperger’s

Background

Asperger’s was named after Hans Asperger, a doctor who did extensive work with children who had autism in 1940s Vienna. (He was later revealed to have been connected to the Nazi party, which causes some controversy in regard to the continued use of his name in association with the condition.)

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was released in 2013 and is the most up-to-date version of the DSM, took several previously separate subtypes of autism and combined them into a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

One of these subtypes was Asperger’s, the diagnosis of which was often equated to mild-to-high-functioning autism.

Though Asperger’s was only first included in the DSM in 1994, examples of its existence can be found throughout history, extending as far back as in renowned scientist Isaac Newton in the 17th century, who has been retrospectively diagnosed with the condition by modern historians.  

Statue of Mozeart
Like Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is among the historical figures now thought to have had Asperger's.

What does it mean to have Asperger’s?

As previously mentioned, Asperger’s and autism are not inherently negative, and it’s offensive to suggest that they are conditions that need “curing.” That being said, there is a range of characteristics associated with autism—and by extension, Asperger’s—that can make day-to-day life difficult to manage.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are common in people with autism, as is a lack of interest in or difficulty in communication with others, which can make it difficult to interact with peers and form relationships.

Child with Asperger's fascinated by colorful toys
It is common for someone with Asperger’s to have a borderline obsessive interest in a specific activity or subject. Image courtesy of WebMD.

According to the Autism Society, “To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger’s Disorder may just seem like a neurotypical child behaving differently . . . [Someone with Asperger’s] may be socially awkward, not understand conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem unengaged in a conversation and not understand the use of gestures or sarcasm.”

All About TMS

What is it?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses magnetic waves to stimulate the brain. This is a non-invasive process that targets specific neural areas through an electromagnetic coil, which a trained technician positions against the patient’s head.

The magnetic pulses emitted by TMS machine are similar to those produced by an MRI machine.

During a TMS session, the patient is seated and awake, and afterward, the patient can resume normal daily activity.

Side effects are mild to nonexistent. Some patients report a slight headache or scalp pain following a TMS treatment. Otherwise, TMS should be free of side effects, which makes it an appealing alternative for patients who have struggled with medications that cause negative side effects

How does it work?

Because the brain is so complex, researchers aren’t certain why it works the way it does, especially when it comes to mood and psychological disposition. For this reason, it isn’t entirely known why TMS is so effective, but the hypothesis is that the electromagnetism triggers activity in the brain and facilitates communication between the cells.

TMS is administered five days a week for four to six weeks, and patients may notice results as soon as the first or second week of treatment.


In a research article published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, authors report “[TMS] is a promising, emerging tool for the study and potential treatment of [autism spectrum disorder]. Recent studies suggest that TMS measures provide rapid and noninvasive pathophysiological ASD biomarkers. Furthermore, repetitive TMS (rTMS) may represent a novel treatment strategy for reducing some of the core and associated ASD symptoms.”  

Because TMS affects mood and the way the brain processes emotion, it might be able to help patients with Asperger’s better process their own emotions and have a more nuanced understanding of others’ emotions, making social interaction more intuitive.

How TMS Can Benefit People with Asperger’s

In 2016, John Elder Robison did an interview with The Cut, in which he shared his experience with TMS as an experimental therapy for Asperger’s. Robison was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the 1990s at the age of 40.

Robison explains that he underwent TMS treatment in order to improve his emotional insight. Prior to TMS, Robison struggled to read emotional cues and understand vocal implications, which made him feel disconnected to the world around him.

Robison has published two memoirs, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening. Image courtesy of WBUR.

“TMS modified my emotional response to what you might call ordinary situations,” says Robison. “People would see my practical response as cold and emotionless. After TMS, I’d look at you and wince at your skinned knee. I never did that before.”

Though TMS helped Robison to navigate social situations more intuitively, he is careful to clarify that he didn’t lack empathy before TMS—he was just able to express it better after.

“I took part in a basic scientific study that proved unexpectedly life-changing. And it still is,” concludes Robison. “I think it has the potential to be life-changing for many people in many ways . . . I also think that we have to be really careful to make clear that none of these therapies are a cure. We are not changing the essence of our person; we are just relieving a thing that disables us.”

Expansion in the Future for TMS

As mentioned, the FDA has only approved TMS to treat depression. However, more and more studies are being done on its effectiveness in regard other psychological conditions, and the results are largely positive.

Hopefully, in time, TMS will be able to help a larger variety of people in the US, since we know it to be quite effective, including those with Asperger’s.

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