Friday, 29 June 2012

The Brains' of Children with Autism are Wired Differently.

Research into how the brain is connected in a different way in children with autism.  What this study doesn't tell you is that 'wiring patterns' in the brain can be changed.  The brain responds mainly to two things, - genetic instruction, (faulty genetic instruction can cause a faulty wiring pattern) and the stimuli it receives from the environment.  The environment is by far the most powerful force and the stimulation from it can be manipulated so as to encourage the brain to change.  This is what the Snowdrop programme is all about.
A research team led by Elizabeth Aylward, a University of Washington professor of radiology, report that brains of adults with autism are “wired” differently from people without the disorder. The researchers, who are affiliated with the University of Washington’s Autism Center, also found that this abnormal connection pattern may be the cause of the social impairments characteristic of autism in children.

The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging in the study, which also revealed that the subjects with the most severe social impairment showed the most abnormal pattern of activity of connectivity in the brain regions that process faces. One of the earliest characteristics to emerge in autistic children is a deficit in face processing, and this study is the first to examine how the brain processes information about faces.

Lead author Natalia Kleinhans states that "This study shows that these brain regions are failing to work together efficiently" and that the “work seems to indicate that the brain pathways of people with autism are not completely disconnected, but they are not as strong as in people without autism."

The study’s participants were 19 high-functioning autistic adults from ages 18 to 44 with IQs of at least 85 and 21 age- and intelligence-matched typically developed adults. Within the autism spectrum disorder group were 8 individuals diagnosed with autism, 9 diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and 2 with an otherwise non-specified pervasive developmental disorder. Levels of social impairment were drawn from clinical observations and diagnoses.

Participants were shown 4 series of 12 pictures of faces and a similar series of pictures of houses, all while having their brains scanned. The pictures were viewed for 3 seconds, and occasionally they were repeated. The participants were instructed to press a button when a picture was repeated.

Because this was a basic task, the two groups’ performances revealed no difference in performance, but, according to co-author Todd Richards, “Differences might have shown up if they had been asked to do something more complicated."

While there was no difference in performance, the two groups exhibited different patterns of brain activity. The typically developing adults showed significantly more connectivity between the area of the brain involved in face identification and two other areas of the brain than did the autism group.

Those autistic participants with the largest social impairment demonstrated the lowest level of connectivity between the areas of the brain, leading the authors to conclude that "This study shows that the brains of people with autism are not working as cohesively as those of people without autism when they are looking at faces and processing information about them."

Does this research mean that children with autism need to be 'stuck' with this connectivity problem? This is not what I am finding. We know that the brain has qualities of plasticity, - that it is capable of re-organising it's structure and functioning through environmental stimulation. We know that this plasticity is achieved through 'sprouting' - that is the forming of new synaptic connections through dendritic growth in response to this environmental stimulation. As I said at the beginning of this post, this means that the faulty wiring pattern which the brains of children with autism adopts can be changed. The question is, how do we do this? At Snowdrop, I do this by providing the child with an enriched developmental environment which provides stimulation appropriate to the child's sensory and cognitive needs. In the particular instance of poor face recognition processing, we can utilise specialised techniques to enhance the abilities of children to process information concerning faces. Very often this leads to greater eye - contact and better facial regard and the development of mutual attention. As these abilities underpin both language and social development, we can also see improvements in these areas.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Music and Language are Processed By Some of the Same Brain Systems

This is further justification for the use of music as a tool for treatment within the Snowdrop programme, both generally and using such tools as 'The Listening Programme' of which Snowdrop is a providor.

With thanks to MNT
Researchers have long debated whether or not language and music depend on common processes in the mind. Now, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have found evidence that the processing of music and language do indeed depend on some of the same brain systems. 

Their findings, which are currently available on-line and will be published later this year in the journal NeuroImage, are the first to suggest that two different aspects of both music and language depend on the same two memory systems in the brain. One brain system, based in the temporal lobes, helps humans memorize information in both language and music -- for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other system, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences, and the rules of harmony in music. 

"Up until now, researchers had found that the processing of rules relies on an overlapping set of frontal lobe structures in music and language. However, in addition to rules, both language and music crucially require the memorization of arbitrary information such as words and melodies," says the study's principal investigator, Michael Ullman, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience, psychology, neurology and linguistics. 

"This study not only confirms that one set of brain structures underlies rules in both language and music, but also suggests, for the first time, that a different brain system underlies memorized information in both domains," Ullman says. "So language and music both depend on two different brain systems, each for the same type of thing -- rules in one case, and arbitrary information in the other." 

Robbin Miranda, Ph.D., currently a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Neuroscience, carried out this research with Ullman for her graduate dissertation at Georgetown. They enrolled 64 adults. They used a technique called Event-Related Potentials, in which they measured the brain's electrical activity using electrodes placed on the scalp. 

The subjects listened to 180 snippets of melodies. Half of the melodies were segments from tunes that most participants would know, such as "Three Blind Mice" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The other half included novel tunes composed by Miranda. Three versions of each well-known and novel melody were created: melodies containing an in-key deviant note (which could only be detected if the melody was familiar, and therefore memorized); melodies that contained an out-of-key deviant note (which violated rules of harmony); and the original (control) melodies. 

For listeners familiar with a melody, an in-key deviant note violated the listener's memory of the melody -- the song sounded musically "correct" and didn't violate any rules of music, but it was different than what the listener had previously memorized. In contrast, in-key "deviant" notes in novel melodies did not violate memory (or rules) because the listeners did not know the tune. 

Out-of-key deviant notes constituted violations of musical rules in both well-known and novel melodies. Additionally, out-of-key deviant notes violated memory in well-known melodies. 

Miranda and Ullman examined the brain waves of the participants who listened to melodies in the different conditions, and found that violations of rules and memory in music corresponded to the two patterns of brain waves seen in previous studies of rule and memory violations in language. That is, in-key violations of familiar (but not novel) melodies led to a brain-wave pattern similar to one called an "N400" that has previously been found with violations of words (such as, "I'll have my coffee with milk and concrete"). Out-of-key violations of both familiar and novel melodies led to a brain-wave pattern over frontal lobe electrodes similar to patterns previously found for violations of rules in both language and music. Finally, out-of-key violations of familiar melodies also led to an N400-like pattern of brain activity, as expected because these are violations of memory as well as rules. 

"This tells us that these two aspects of music, that is rules and memorized melodies, depend on two different brain systems -- brain systems that also underlie rules and memorized information in language," Ullman says. "The findings open up exciting new ways of thinking about and investigating the relationship between language and music, two fundamental human capacities."