Neural systems for speech and song in autism

In commencement of the administration of my pilot study (as well as my primary investigator’s full experiments) in working memory, autism and music, here is an interesting article I came across today. The idea simply drives forward what we already know: where subjects who suffer from aphasia and other language difficulties falter in normative speech patterns, music provides a far higher stimulation in areas of the brain (this study concentrating on the left inferior frontal gyrus in particular) and thus lends to speech development which ordinarily may not have been possible.

Abstract:

Despite language disabilities in autism, music abilities are frequently preserved. Paradoxically, brain regions associated with these functions typically overlap, enabling investigation of neural organization supporting speech and song in autism. Neural systems sensitive to speech and song were compared in low-functioning autistic and age-matched control children using passive auditory stimulation during functional magnetic resonance and diffusion tensor imaging. Activation in left inferior frontal gyrus was reduced in autistic children relative to controls during speech stimulation, but was greater than controls during song stimulation. Functional connectivity for song relative to speech was also increased between left inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus in autism, and large-scale connectivity showed increased frontal–posterior connections. Although fractional anisotropy of the left arcuate fasciculus was decreased in autistic children relative to controls, structural terminations of the arcuate fasciculus in inferior frontal gyrus were indistinguishable between autistic and control groups. Fractional anisotropy correlated with activity in left inferior frontal gyrus for both speech and song conditions. Together, these findings indicate that in autism, functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than for speech and projections of structural pathways associated with these functions were not distinguishable from controls.

The open access html doc may be found here and for those interested:

DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr335

As I begin my very first experimental session, I’ll do my best to keep a log here, simply because I very much enjoy the feedback, and it helps to keep my thoughts aligned.

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The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

Two nights ago, I read what I believe to be the most personally relevant and  meaningful article I’ve come in contact with in nearly a year. I do not say this lightly,  because I remember the last moment in time I felt this way. I read Halden’s post  entitled Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love  not when it was originally  posted in 2008, but a couple of days after New Year’s Day, 2011. It came at the  perfect time-as does the one I’ve just read-because it is about love and loss; rejection and isolation. What  isn’t, after all? Love and death are the strongest of motivators and ordeals, and death  would seem sterile and void of strife were it not for love.

Unfortunately, great as the ups may be, so great are the downs. Having a fair bit of  recent exposure to both tribulations, I would like to share some insight I’ve found in  direct correlation to the more neuroscientific side of things.

At UCLA in 2003, a study was done explicitly on the neural correlates of social  rejection entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Obviously,  anyone with access to the internet and a free subscription to a science mag online  could tell you that these have been done before; it’s nothing new to observe the psychological underpinnings of pain when a child is picked last (or not at all) for a game of sport after school. It is new information to me, however, that the physiological aspects in the pain of rejection have now proven quite similar to any other type of physical pain: when we lose someone we love, for whatever reason it may be, it literally hurts. The abstract of this article below may better explain the premise:

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.[1]

In the aforementioned, we see that this test was administered to children whilst playing in a ‘virtual ball tossing game’ where they were eventually excluded. If the ACC activity is ‘disrupted’ by such a common and (what many might view as childish experience) what can we say of the potential for anguish of those who lose a spouse? A parent? A child? Of those not only excluded, but abandoned? This brings me to the article in question. Though I’ve found the writing and vocal stylings to stem from a slightly more youthful (and charmingly so!) perspective than I’ve become accustomed in my daily journal fix, pain is pain is pain. We don’t need sappy (and wonderful) song lyrics from Blindside  to tell us that ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re in this together. All of us are searching for an open arm. I could go on forever in tangent about why I can’t wrap my head around referring to God as ‘big other’ or humanity as at last to be but cold, selfish and detached. There is something else at work here, when one experiences pain beyond a certain magnitude. Christie Wilcox does a fine job of breaking this process down for us:

 Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Christie goes on to state the unfortunate obvious: sometimes understanding the evolutionary biology or even rationale behind it all is simply not enough. We may now see the possibly the main hook for me in her article: she turns to music. We all know the studies on how exercise/having sex/listening to music/interacting with art, etc. are proven to release dopamine, arousing feelings of happiness and positive valence. The thing that really caught my attention is something I’m shocked I had not let sink in previously: music stimulates and creates a feeling of control. I cannot begin to list the litany of mental illnesses that include negative outcomes which seemingly stem directly from a perceived lack of impulse control, but just for effect, I will name a few:

A)    ASD (Autism, Asperger’s)

B)    Attention Deficit Disorder

C)    Manic Depression

D)    Paranoid Schizophrenia

E)    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

F)     Borderline Personality Disorder

G)    The paraphilias (exhibitionism and pedophilia)

H)    Various disorders advocating self-harming behaviors

The list plainly goes on and on. From the little I’ve observed in various interpersonal encounters in various stages of life, very few of us enjoy a major lack of control; those suffering from preconceived abandonment/loss apprehensions, even less. Here we have the ultimate tie-in that I seem to be making quite a lot lately: Chalk one more up for music psychology. I would be telling a blatant untruth if I refrained from admitting I too have found listening to music to be all of the above: exhilarating, liberating, calming, but more importantly creating the massive sensation of immediate…not necessarily peace, or ease, but control.

As I draw near to the day when I must nail down my precise research proposal for graduate school, I’ll again briefly show how this relates to what I want to do, and feel can be done. In that exact moment of conflict (commonly the amygdale hijack) our mental, emotional and physical actions are crucial. Countless sufferers of self-destructive behaviors including those who engage in self-inflicted physical pain, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, and kleptomania suffer from a perceived lack of control-and will do anything to reclaim it. If one is in control, there is a (even if false) sense that everything will be okay; that everything’s not lost. I very simply believe that like many other (‘healthy’) activities that people engage in, music can be an instantaneous way for the patient to achieve, even if for a moment, control. 

I certainly here digress, but will continue this thought process further in future posts.


[1] Science 10 October 2003:
Vol. 302 no. 5643 pp. 290-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134