Classical Music, Autism, and the Limbic System

A study by Natalia Kleinhans, Elizabeth Aylward, and Todd Richards shows that people with autism, Asperger’s, and PDD have brains that are wired differently.

Sagittal View of Human Brain Showing the Limbic System

Eight individuals with autism, nine with Asperger’s, and two with PDD were shown series of pictures of faces or houses and given a task of pressing a button when the picture was repeated. Their brains were scanned using fMRI and compared to 21 adults with normal development. Because the task was so simple, there was no difference in the accuracy of the replies. However, the fMRI showed significant differences in the connectivity of the limbic system.
Compared to the participants with autism, the typically developing adults showed significantly more connectivity between the fusiform face area and two other brain regions: the left amygdala and the posterior cingulate. . . .[A]utistic participants who had the largest social impairment showed the lowest level of connectivity between the right fusiform face area and the left amygdala and increased connectivity between the right fusiform face area and the right inferior frontal gyrus.

And how does music fit into this? Steven Brown, Michael J. Martinez, and Lawrence M Parsons focused on music and the limbic system :

In this PET study, non-musicians passively listened to unfamiliar instrumental music revealed afterward to elicit strongly pleasant feelings. Activations were observed in the subcallosal cingulate gyrus, prefrontal anterior cingulate, retrosplenial cortex, hippocampus, anterior insula, and nucleus accumbens. This is the first observation of spontaneous responses in such limbic and paralimbic areas during passive listening to unfamiliar although liked music. Activations were also seen in primary auditory, secondary auditory, and temporal polar areas known to respond to music.

And so did Anders C. Green, Klaus B. Baerentsen, Hans Stodkilde-Jorgensen, Mikkel Wallentin, Andreas Roepstorff, and Peter Vuust :

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we contrasted major and minor mode melodies controlled for liking to study the neural basis of musical mode perception. To examine the influence of the larger dissonance in minor melodies on neural activation differences, we further introduced a strongly dissonant stimulus, in the form of a chromatic scale. Minor mode melodies were evaluated as sadder than major melodies, and in comparison they caused increased activity in limbic structures, namely left parahippocampal gyrus, bilateral ventral anterior cingulate, and in left medial prefrontal cortex. Dissonance explained some, but not all, of the heightened activity in the limbic structures when listening to minor mode music.

And finally this study by Martina T Mitterschiffthaler, Cynthia H Y Fu, Jeffrey A Dalton, Christopher M Andrew, and Steven C R Williams :

Increased BOLD signal contrast during presentation of happy music was found in the ventral and dorsal striatum, anterior cingulate, parahippocampal gyrus, and auditory association areas. With sad music, increased BOLD signal responses were noted in the hippocampus/amygdala and auditory association areas. Presentation of neutral music was associated with increased BOLD signal responses in the insula and auditory association areas. Our findings suggest that an emotion processing network in response to music integrates the ventral and dorsal striatum, areas involved in reward experience and movement; the anterior cingulate, which is important for targeting attention; and medial temporal areas, traditionally found in the appraisal and processing of emotions.

Minus the scientific lingo, here’s what’s important : the brain continuously rewires itself to perform the tasks most efficiently that we perform most. If we listen to a lot of music, the brain will rewire itself to process music more efficiently. Now that we see significant limbic system involvement in the brains of normal adults with respect to listening to classical music, it’s possible that the differing wiring in the limbic systems of autistic individuals can be at least partly rewired using classical music. Although there are hundreds of anecdotal stories on the blogs of autistic people or the parents of autistic children about how classical music has helped them, there haven’t been any large-scale, formal studies done. However, given the evidence for education, health, and all other benefits of studying classical music, this pretty much seems like a no-brainer to at least give it a try. At worst, you’ll blow $15 on a CD of pretty music; at best . . . who knows?

See the Neuroanatomy page for an explanation of what the various affected parts of the brain do.

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