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Music as a Path to Language in Autism

December 27, 2011 24 comments

Today’s guest blog post is from Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory and associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, in Boston. He is a recent recipient of an Autism Speaks Treatment Research Grant.

As many as three in ten children with autism are nonverbal. Yet many children with autism have superior auditory skills and a particular attraction to music. Based on these observations, I and my colleagues have been using forms of music-making that encourage vocalization as a pathway to developing language.

We call our therapy Auditory-Motor Mapping Training (AMMT), and our approach is built on two findings.

First research has shown that music-making creates clear changes in the human brain. In particular we know that it engages and strengthens connections between the auditory and motor regions and improves mapping of sounds to actions. Second, here at our Music and Neuroimaging Lab, we have successfully used a form of singing (i.e., Melodic Intonation Therapy) to help stroke patients regain speech lost after a stroke (aphasia). In essence, our therapies involve having the patient sing words and phrases while using a coordinated movement of the hand not affected by the stroke. This helps their brains map sounds to actions.

In recent years, we’ve adapted our music-motor therapy for stroke victims in ways that allow us to use it with children who have autism and little or no speech. In simplified terms: Our team members sing words and phrases with social connotations (for example, “more please,” “mommy,” “all done”) to the children and with the children, while showing them pictures of the action, person or object. At the same time, we guide each child’s hand to play two drum pads tuned to different pitches.

We believe that intensive, repetitive training—pairing sound with actions–can engage and strengthen the brain pathways needed to speak. In our recently published “proof of concept” study, each participant received 40 treatment sessions, conducted 5 days per week over an 8 week period, with each session lasting 45 minutes. Further analysis revealed that the therapy’s benefits probably occur in the first 25 sessions.

We have seen very encouraging results in our pilot and proof-of-concept studies and are now excited to expand our research and therapy program with a 2011 treatment grant from Autism Speaks. In other words, this funding and this study are being made possible by you—Autism Speaks’ community of supporters. Thank you. We look forward to reporting back our results! Meanwhile, please visit our lab’s website: http://www.musicianbrain.com.

Read more science news and perspective on the science page. And explore more of the studies we’re funding with our grant search.

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