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Are developmental disorders like cases of adult brain damage? Implications from connectionist modelling

  • Michael Thomas (a1) and Annette Karmiloff-Smith (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 December 2002

It is often assumed that similar domain-specific behavioural impairments found in cases of adult brain damage and developmental disorders correspond to similar underlying causes, and can serve as convergent evidence for the modular structure of the normal adult cognitive system. We argue that this correspondence is contingent on an unsupported assumption that atypical development can produce selective deficits while the rest of the system develops normally (Residual Normality), and that this assumption tends to bias data collection in the field. Based on a review of connectionist models of acquired and developmental disorders in the domains of reading and past tense, as well as on new simulations, we explore the computational viability of Residual Normality and the potential role of development in producing behavioural deficits. Simulations demonstrate that damage to a developmental model can produce very different effects depending on whether it occurs prior to or following the training process. Because developmental disorders typically involve damage prior to learning, we conclude that the developmental process is a key component of the explanation of endstate impairments in such disorders. Further simulations demonstrate that in simple connectionist learning systems, the assumption of Residual Normality is undermined by processes of compensation or alteration elsewhere in the system. We outline the precise computational conditions required for Residual Normality to hold in development, and suggest that in many cases it is an unlikely hypothesis. We conclude that in developmental disorders, inferences from behavioural deficits to underlying structure crucially depend on developmental conditions, and that the process of ontogenetic development cannot be ignored in constructing models of developmental disorders.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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