Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who receive one-on-one music therapy, which may include singing and/or playing an instrument, may experience improved social communication skills and increased brain connectivity in key networks

That can lead to enhanced quality of life for the whole family, according to a new Canadian study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The link between ASD and music dates back to the first description of autism, more than 70 years ago, when it was said that nearly half of those with autism possessed “perfect pitch.” Since then, there have been many anecdotes about the profound impact music can have on those with ASD, yet there is little research to date confirming its therapeutic benefits.

To investigate this link further, researchers from the Université de Montréal’s (UdeM) International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) and McGill University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) evaluated 51 children with ASD, ages 6 to 12, as they participated in a clinical trial involving three months of a music-based intervention.

First, the parents filled out questionnaires about their child’s symptom severity, social communication skills and their family’s quality of life. The children were given MRI scans to establish a baseline of brain activity.

Children were then randomly placed into one of two groups: one involving music and the other not. Each session lasted 45 minutes and was conducted at Westmount Music Therapy.

In the music group, the kids sang and played different musical instruments, working with a therapist to engage in a reciprocal interaction. The control group worked with the same therapist and also engaged in reciprocal play, but without any musical activities.

Following the sessions, parents of children in the music group reported significant improvements in their children’s communication skills and family’s quality life, beyond those reported for the control group. Neither group reported reductions in autism severity.

“These findings are exciting and hold much promise for autism intervention,” said Dr. Megha Sharda, a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal and lead author.

In addition, the MRI scans suggest that the improved communications skills seen in the music group children could be a result of increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain, and decreased connectivity between auditory and visual regions. These are commonly observed as over-connected in people with autism.

Sharda explains that optimal connectivity between these regions is extremely important for integrating sensory stimuli in our environment and also necessary for social interaction. For example, when we are communicating with another person, we need to pay attention to what they are saying, plan ahead to know when it is our turn to speak and ignore irrelevant noise. For people with autism, this can often be a challenge.

The new trial is the first to show that music intervention for school-age children with autism can lead to improvements in both communication and brain connectivity, and it provides a possible neurological explanation for improvements in communication.

“The universal appeal of music makes it globally applicable and can be implemented with relatively few resources on a large scale in multiple settings such as home and school,” said Dr. Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill’s SCSD and co-senior author of the study with Dr. Krista Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at UdeM.

“Importantly, our study, as well as a recent large-scale clinical trial on music intervention, did not find changes with respect to autism symptoms themselves,” Sharda added. “This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviors.”

The researchers are currently developing tools to determine whether the improvements in communications skills can also be observed through direct observation of the interaction between child and therapist.

“Remarkably, our results were observed after only eight to 12 weekly sessions,” said Hyde. “We’ll need to replicate these results with multiple therapists with different degrees of training to evaluate whether the effects persist in larger, real-world settings.”

Source: University of Montreal