Music reigns

Brain imaging studies of people with autism show that specific areas respond more strongly to song than do those of controls. The opposite is true when listening to speech.

By Emily Singer
21 February 2012 | 3 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

A friend of mine who has a 3-year-old son with autism says that he could sing dozens of songs before he ever spoke a word of  command. That sharp contrast between language and musical ability is not unusual in children with the disorder.

Though these children often have language difficulties, a significant number appear to have exceptional musical talent, such as perfect pitch.

Given that the brain regions that process speech and song overlap, what explains this disparity in autism? A new brain imaging study seeks to explore its cause and, in so doing, shed light on some of the roots of the disorder.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 12 low-functioning children with autism with a mean age of 12, and 21 similarly aged controls, as they listened to a parent speaking or their favorite song.

Activity in part of the brain called the left inferior frontal gyrus, which is involved in processing both music and speech, is weaker in participants with autism than in controls when they listen to speech, but stronger than in controls when they listen to music, the study found. 

The researchers also analyzed brain structure in these participants and in an additional 24 low-functioning people with autism, by using fMRI to explore the functional connections among brain regions, and a type of structural MRI known as diffusion tensor imaging.

One theory for the language deficits in autism is a problem with the long-range connections in the brain. In the new study, the researchers found some structural differences between the two groups in various parts of the brain, but conclude that problems with the brain’s long-range connections are unlikely to account for language deficits in the people with autism.

They suggest instead that changes in local connectivity or lower-level auditory processing may account for the differences in the way the brains of people with autism respond to speech and song. For example, speech requires discrimination of quickly changing sounds, whereas the fluctuations in music are slower and therefore may be easier to process.

The specific conclusions of this kind of structural study are up for debate, especially given recent research pointing to a potential flaw in brain imaging studies of children with developmental disabilities. But the findings provide support for incorporating music into behavioral therapy.

Previous research has shown that making music a part of therapy may help children with autism learn social skills and language, but more rigorous research is needed on the topic. It has also shown that children with the disorder process emotional cues from music, despite having difficulty understanding facial emotions.

Perhaps song will offer a way for lower-functioning children with autism to better learn to communicate.