Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Music for Autism? – an acquired taste, apparently

Today’s post is about music and music therapy.

A new study reports that music therapy does not improve autism symptoms.

In an earlier post we saw that singing reduces the level of your stress hormone cortisol; this was based on testing adults in a choir, so not music novices.

Music has actually been shown to do much more than just reduce your level of stress, it can actually affect the expression of your genes, but only in those who are “musically experienced”; in people with little experience of music it does nothing. 

Although brain imaging studies have demonstrated that listening to music alters human brain structure and function, the molecular mechanisms mediating those effects remain unknown. With the advent of genomics and bioinformatics approaches, these effects of music can now be studied in a more detailed fashion. To verify whether listening to classical music has any effect on human transcriptome, we performed genome-wide transcriptional profiling from the peripheral blood of participants after listening to classical music (n = 48), and after a control study without music exposure (n = 15). As musical experience is known to influence the responses to music, we compared the transcriptional responses of musically experienced and inexperienced participants separately with those of the controls. Comparisons were made based on two subphenotypes of musical experience: musical aptitude and music education. In musically experienced participants, we observed the differential expression of 45 genes (27 up- and 18 down-regulated) and 97 genes (75 up- and 22 down-regulated) respectively based on subphenotype comparisons (rank product non-parametric statistics, pfp 0.05, >1.2-fold change over time across conditions). Gene ontological overrepresentation analysis (hypergeometric test, FDR < 0.05) revealed that the up-regulated genes are primarily known to be involved in the secretion and transport of dopamine, neuron projection, protein sumoylation, long-term potentiation and dephosphorylation. Down-regulated genes are known to be involved in ATP synthase-coupled proton transport, cytolysis, and positive regulation of caspase, peptidase and endopeptidase activities. One of the most up-regulated genes, alpha-synuclein (SNCA), is located in the best linkage region of musical aptitude on chromosome 4q22.1 and is regulated by GATA2, which is known to be associated with musical aptitude. Several genes reported to regulate song perception and production in songbirds displayed altered activities, suggesting a possible evolutionary conservation of sound perception between species. We observed no significant findings in musically inexperienced participants.


Apparently there are about 7,000 music therapists in the United States and about 6,000 in Europe.  One of the target groups for these therapists is children with autism.
So should parents pay out their cash for music therapy classes?  Well a very recent large study carried out in nine countries by a team from Norway suggests you might not want to open your wallet.
I must say that I hold a different view and that this simplistic kind of research is rather unhelpful. 
From the research in this blog we know that people who develop a love of music express a measurable biological effect, which does indeed look beneficial.
How do you develop a love of music, or indeed dance? Well you have to be exposed to it and engage in it.
Music therapy is all about engaging in music.
Monty, now aged 14 with ASD, has been dancing almost since he was walking, in great part because his then assistant loved music.  Later on you can start to make your own simple music, later you can sing and eventually play an instrument.  This process takes years.  
Music therapy is just a start, years later you can be trampolining to Abba, lying in bed listing to classical music, or just playing the piano.  But it is a long road.
In the recent research they gave 5 months of music therapy to 364 children aged 4 to 7 and then tested their social skills using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).  Their social skill score did not improve. I am not sure why they picked this variable to measure.
This is yet more flawed research, which will then be quoted as fact by others.
You could make a study on teaching judo to kids with autism. I think you would find after 5 months it did not improve their social skills, but those who continue for 5 years might benefit considerably, versus those sat on the sofa watching videos on their iPads.
Clearly not everyone likes music, or indeed judo. Many kids with more severe autism have little interest in anything and so they need a lot more encouragement than typical kids.
The only way to find out if children can develop an interest in music, sport or anything else is to expose them to it at a young age. This is all music therapy is supposed to be, it is not meant to be a cure for anything. 

Researchers found that children with ASD in nine countries scored similarly on a test of their social skills whether or not they had received the music therapy.

"Music therapy - like many other interventions that have been suggested - does not improve autism symptoms," said senior author Christian Gold, of the Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Center and Uni Research Health in Bergen, Norway.

ASDs are developmental disorders that can lead to social, communication and behavioral challenges. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an ASD.

The anecdotal link between music and ASD goes back many years, Gold and colleagues write in JAMA. During music therapy, a person helps a child spontaneously make music through singing, playing and movement.

There are about 7,000 music therapists in the United States and about 6,000 in Europe, the researchers write.

For the new study, the researchers recruited 364 children ages 4 to 7 years from 10 treatment centers between 2011 and 2015. The centers were in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel, Italy, Korea, Norway, the UK and the U.S.

All of the children received the usual care a child with ASD would receive in their region, but half of the children were randomly assigned to also get music therapy.

Usual care could range from early intensive behavioral interventions, to speech and language therapy, to sensory-motor therapies and medications, Gold told Reuters Health by email.

"Music therapy is also among the interventions that have been recommended when it is available," he said. "Some parents who are frustrated with behavioral interventions may experience it as bringing back the joy of being with their child in a natural way."

After five months of therapy, the researchers did not find a difference between the two groups of children on a measure of social skills.

Gold said parents should continue to pursue music therapy if they feel it's a good match for their children, but don't expect it to be a so-called treatment.

The article below is quite a good one:

The study itself:

In this issue of JAMA, Bieleninik and colleagues1 present the results of a large, well-designed, multicenter randomized clinical trial (RCT) of improvisational music therapy for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Music therapy is “a systematic process of intervention wherein the therapist helps the client to promote health, using musical experiences and the relationships that develop through them.”2 Among 364 children aged 4 to 7 years, over 5 months, the mean scores on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), social affect domain, decreased from 14.08 to 13.23 among children randomized to improvisational music therapy and from 13.49 to 12.58 among those randomized to enhanced standard care, a mean difference in change scores of 0.06 (95% CI, −0.70 to 0.81), with no significant differences between groups.

How Much Music?
I think you need music lessons twice a week to have a meaningful impact and, as with all therapies, you need more practice at home.  Most kindergartens have music and dance as part of their activities. Taken together it is not so hard to get quite a lot of exposure to music at a young age. Then, if the child really likes music, you just keep going.  


Is music therapy a quick fix for autism? Definitely not.
Is music therapy a fun way to engage many young children with autism? The recent research does not say so, but it is clear that many people, with all levels of autism severity, can enjoy music and participate in it.
I think we should put music alongside sport, as a useful activity that young children should be encouraged to engage in.   It can be a struggle to get some people with autism to engage in anything, which is where a music therapist comes in.
Is it worth the investment in time and money? That all depends on the child and the therapist. Buying a piano, 7 years ago, was certainly one of my better investments; but you do also need a lot of lessons.  The end result is someone with a genuine love of many kinds of music and I expect he is now in the cortisol lowering, gene expression modifying category of the musically experienced.
Five months of unspecified music therapy may not be enough to see results and quite possible those results are not increased sociability anyway.

Sunday 14 May 2017

A Visit to Secondary School and Piano Recitals

Today’s post is science free, since for some of the original readers this blog it has become heavy going at times.
Monty, now aged 13 with autism, is about to move up to mainstream secondary/high school.  While this might sound quite a normal transition I really doubt his kindergarten teacher ever thought he would make it that far, in a meaningful way. Even I thought that finishing mainstream primary/junior school would be quite a challenge.
One reader of this blog is Monty’s kindergarten teacher who has known him from before his diagnosis, a decade ago. Outside of the North America people tend not to want to diagnose autism in three year olds and parents do not want to hear reports from kindergarten that things may not be so good. Even being non-verbal may not ring alarm bells with pediatricians; where we live it is put down as “dysphasia”.
In spite of the tell-tale signs, the differences at the age of three between classic autism and typical are not so big.  We do not have great expectations of three year olds, even though some are already very talented.
Monty’s kindergarten teacher requested he have a 1:1 assistant before he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and a half; he has had one ever since.
Having started kindergarten quite young it was no big deal to spend an extra year there before moving to primary/junior school. 
For the next four years Monty went to mainstream school in the morning and had 1:1 tuition at home in the afternoon. Very slowly some academic skills were acquired, but mainly as the result of the home program. Not surprisingly, a gulf had opened up between Monty’s skills and that of his peer group. 
As is often the case with little boys with autism, he did get “adopted” by nicer little girls in primary. So you would see him walking hand in hand around the school playground.
At this point, aged 8, Monty had a big regression involving both self-injury and aggression to others.  This lasted about 9 months and was associated with a loss of some of the recently acquired skills.
We never had an assessment using the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), which is a pity because at least it tells you, at one point in time, where you stand. At the age of 9, Monty had mastered the skills in the very detailed ABLLS assessment, which is an excellent list of all the very basic skills you need; these are skills big brother had at 3 years old.
Shortly thereafter I started my autism science research and instigated a trial of bumetanide.  The rate of skill acquisition then accelerated and the severity of autism faded.
Even though the violent behavior had subsided, at the end of that school year I decided to move him down one school year.  In effect his peer group changed to one which was 2-3 years younger than him.  In subsequent years he moved forward with this new peer group, so he has been in the same peer group for 5 years.
Each year I said to the class teacher that if at the end of the school year Monty had not mastered the year we could repeat it, because there is no point deluding yourself and moving to a higher level when you are clueless about the previous level.  So as long as there are 10+% of the class with lower grades in each subject, I think it is fine to move ahead.  It does surprise me how badly some neurotypical kids do at school, because they should all be ahead of Monty, but some are not. From time to time, Monty is actually closer to the top of the class, which is remarkable.
Since big brother has only one more year to finish secondary/high school, he was rather expecting little brother to wait another year in primary/junior school.
As his classmates started talking about the move to secondary school, Monty naturally assumed he would be moving too.  Having been told by Monty “in September we go to secondary school” so many times, this is of course what is happening.
Recently Monty and his class had a half day visit to their new school and everybody had a great time.
Plenty of the younger kids in secondary already know Monty and as do some of the big ones who are friends of Monty’s big brother.
So big brother realized it was not going to be embarrassing after all.
Siblings going to the same school often have issues, in part because teachers feel the need to compare them to see who is better/cleverer. The fair comparison is the progress you make from where you started, as I keep telling big brother's maths teacher; so not to accept that you have A, B and C grade students and be happy they get their predicted grade, but to try and improve them.
The secondary school is small, but has had some boys with Asperger’s in the past. In theory it should be much easier for them to fit into school, but often it is not. Most of the issues that I get to hear about were entirely preventable.  Having an assistant who the other kids like and respect solves most of these issues.
How far Monty goes through the standard secondary program remains to be seen. He cannot do the high level things that his big brother can do but, as I have learned, neither can 20% of the class and nobody diagnoses them with MR/ID.

Music Recitals

One area where people with Asperger’s can excel is music. There is research to show that people with autism/Asperger’s are far more likely to have perfect pitch than other people. Another big difference is that the Asperger’s child may be happy to practice at home three hours a day.
We recently had a visit from a girl with Asperger’s and she played the piano amazingly, but as Monty’s big brother pointed out, so would he if he practiced 20 hours a week.  It appears to be a case of social life or music practice.
Monty does not play his piano 20 hours a week, for him it is more like 3 hours a week.
Monty recently had two concerts, one at school with typical peers and an autism/Asperger’s concert.
Who plays the best? Well in this unscientific sample, it is clear that the Asperger’s kids play the best, followed by the typical kids and then the autism kids.
Where does Monty fit in? Well he started out as an autism kid, but after nearly five years of pharmacotherapy he is well up there with the more talented typical kids, but not yet up there with the star Asperger’s kids who practice 3 hours a day.

Monty's piano teacher, who has seen him twice a week for five years and only teaches kids with special needs has pretty much the same opinion. Monty is not her best pupil, but he is the only one to progress so far, from where he started. He started his piano before he started his PolyPill. Her comment a while back was, whatever it is he is taking, keep giving it to him.  


Monty goes to an International school using the English curriculum, where high school starts at the age of 11; he will start aged 14.  Most of the spelling I use is American English, except for some words that look really odd, since this blog's audience is 70% American and spelling was never my strong point.

Most people diagnosed today with autism have mild autism, often without a speech delay or cognitive loss and should be able to complete the standard school curriculum. People with more severe autism do not normally progress far with academic learning and many "graduate" aged 18 with the skills of a 7 to 8 year old. This does not have to be the case, as some readers of this blog have also discovered.