Study uses music to explore the autistic brain's emotion processing

May 7, 2008

Music has a universal ability to tap into our deepest emotions. Unfortunately, for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), understanding emotions is a very difficult task. Can music help them? Thanks to funding from the GRAMMY Foundation Grant Program, researchers at UCLA are about to find out.

Individuals with ASD have trouble recognizing emotions, particularly social emotions conveyed through facial expressions — a frown, a smirk or a smile. This inability can rob a child of the chance to communicate and socialize and often leads to social isolation.

In an innovative study led by Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, music will be used as a tool to explore the ability of children with ASD to identify emotions in musical excerpts and facial expressions.

"Music has long been known to touch autistic children," Molnar-Szakacs said. "Studies from the early days of autism research have already shown us that music provokes engagement and interest in kids with ASD. More recently, such things as musical memory and pitch abilities in children with ASD have been found to be as good as or better than in typically developing children."

In addition, he said, researchers have shown that because many children with ASD are naturally interested in music, they respond well to music-based therapy.

But no one has ever done a study to see if children with ASD process musical emotions and social emotions in the same way that typically developing children do.

In this study, Molnar-Szakacs will use "emotional music" to examine the brain regions involved in emotion processing.

"Our hypothesis is that if we are able to engage the brain region involved in emotion processing using emotional music, this will open the doorway for teaching children with ASD to better recognize emotions in social stimuli, such as facial expressions."

The overarching goal of the study, of course, is to gain insights about the causes of autism. Molnar-Szakacs will use neuroimaging — functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI — to look at and compare brain activity in ASD children with brain activity in typically developing kids while both groups are engaged in identifying emotions from faces and musical excerpts.

"The study should help us to better understand how the brain processes emotion in children with autism; that, in turn, will help us develop more optimal interventions," Molnar-Szakacs said. "Importantly, this study will also help us promote the use of music as a powerful tool for studying brain functions, from cognition to creativity."

Approximately 15 children with ASD, ranging in age from 10 to 13, will participate in the study, which is being conducted under the auspices of the Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance. The alliance, directed by UCLA's Elizabeth Laugeson, is an innovative partnership between the nonprofit Help Group, which serves children with special needs related to autism, and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and is dedicated to enhancing and expanding ASD research. The project is also being conducted in collaboration with Katie Overy, co-director of the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

"The hope, of course, is that this work will not only be of scientific value and interest, but most of all, that it will translate into real-life improvements in the quality of the children's lives," Molnar-Szakacs said.

Source: UCLA

Explore further: Music therapy for children with autism does not improve symptoms

Related Stories

Music therapy for children with autism does not improve symptoms

August 8, 2017
Among children with autism spectrum disorder, improvisational music therapy resulted in no significant difference in symptom severity compared to children who received enhanced standard care alone, according to a study published ...

'Toolkit' makes medical procedures less stressful for children with autism

September 22, 2011
The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has joined with Autism Speaks to create a resource for physicians and parents of children with autism to better prepare for blood draws and other routine medical procedures. This new toolkit, ...

Positive, humane and practical—a new paradigm for understanding autism

April 21, 2016
For more than four decades, Barry Prizant has worked as a clinical scholar, researcher and consultant to persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Through his 2015 book "Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism," ...

Technology as a social lifeline for kids with Asperger's

February 26, 2015
Technology is often maligned for having a negative influence on young people, particularly on their ability to develop healthy social relations and a sense of identity. But technology can also be a force for good.

Perinatal psychiatry, birth trauma and perinatal PTSD

August 25, 2016
It is now blatantly clear that a woman's increased vulnerability to developing PTSD is closely linked to that fact that, when compared to a man, she is much more likely to be the victim of the toxic traumas of childhood sexual ...

Recommended for you

More surprises about blood development—and a possible lead for making lymphocytes

January 22, 2018
Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) have long been regarded as the granddaddy of all blood cells. After we are born, these multipotent cells give rise to all our cell lineages: lymphoid, myeloid and erythroid cells. Hematologists ...

How metal scaffolds enhance the bone healing process

January 22, 2018
A new study shows how mechanically optimized constructs known as titanium-mesh scaffolds can optimize bone regeneration. The induction of bone regeneration is of importance when treating large bone defects. As demonstrated ...

Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production

January 18, 2018
T cells play a key role in the body's immune response against pathogens. As a new class of therapeutic approaches, T cells are being harnessed to fight cancer, promising more precise, longer-lasting mitigation than traditional, ...

Weight flux alters molecular profile, study finds

January 17, 2018
The human body undergoes dramatic changes during even short periods of weight gain and loss, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Secrets of longevity protein revealed in new study

January 17, 2018
Named after the Greek goddess who spun the thread of life, Klotho proteins play an important role in the regulation of longevity and metabolism. In a recent Yale-led study, researchers revealed the three-dimensional structure ...

The HLF gene protects blood stem cells by maintaining them in a resting state

January 17, 2018
The HLF gene is necessary for maintaining blood stem cells in a resting state, which is crucial for ensuring normal blood production. This has been shown by a new research study from Lund University in Sweden published in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.