Columbia University Medical Center

Neural Systems for Speech and Song in Autism

Despite their language disabilities, people with autism frequently retain their musical abilities. Since the brain regions associated with the two functions typically overlap, this paradox enabled researchers to investigate the neural organization that underlies receptive functions associated with spoken language and song in autistic and age-matched typical children. Using functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging, the Columbia team of Joy Hirsch, Grace Lai, Spiro Pantazatos, and Harry Schneider found that the structural pathways for these systems did not differ between the children with autism and the control children. In the children with autism, however, the functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than for speech. These findings, which were published online in Brain on February 1, 2012, suggest that in autism, problems with speech may result from a failure to process language-specific information, rather than disconnection of the system as a whole. The results suggest a possible use of music to rehabilitate impaired language in those with autism.

Also on CUMC News: