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From prosody to music: an fMRI study on emotional processing in autism

Final Activity Report Summary - FMRI AUTISM (From prosody to music: an fMRI study on emotional processing in autism)

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) dramatically impairs interpersonal behaviours, sociality and communication. A specific deficit in the ability to express and understand emotions has often been hypothesized to be an important correlate underlying such social impairments. Studies have so far thoroughly explored the deficit of individuals with ASD in identifying emotions in visual stimuli (facial expressions) but little is known about their ability to perceive emotions conveyed by auditory stimuli such as music. Music has been found to be capable to evoke and convey strong and consistent positive and negative emotions in healthy subjects. Neuroimaging studies on healthy adults have brought to light the neural correlates of emotional processing of music. In particular a network of limbic and paralimbic structures implicated in reward and emotion is observed in response to music.

Research in autism has highlighted a relatively intact or superior musical pitch processing. Yet, behavioural studies on ASD subjects have reported their ability to properly identify the positive or negative emotional valence of music stimuli. This study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the neural correlates of emotion processing in 5 subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorders (17 and 32 years) and a matching group of healthy subjects during music perception. The aim was to provide a neurobiological support to the behavioural studies reporting a preserved ability to identify emotions conveyed by music in subjects with ASD. Participants were asked to select their favoured happy and sad musical pieces. Likewise we selected standard happy and sad classical musical excerpts. Before starting the fMRI experiment participants rated all musical excerpts. Both groups underwent a single fMRI session using a passive music listening paradigm.

The stimuli consisted of preferred musical excerpts, classical musical excerpts and sequences of random tones with no clear rhythmic pattern. Results indicate the altered and preserved cerebral brain circuitries involved in the emotional processing of music in ASD subjects. In most of the cases preferred but not standard classical excerpts elicited increased activation of limbic and/or paralimbic structures usually involved in emotional processing. Results resemble those obtained by previous studies on neurotypical adults. By identifying the specific pattern in comparison to a group of healthy subjects this study enhanced our knowledge of the emotion deficit and skills in ASD, which is an under-investigated area of research.

Moreover, these findings suggest appropriate strategies to promote emotion understanding of subjects with ASD. In addition further studies in this direction may provide the neurobiological bases for the interventions based on music therapy programs which seem to facilitate communication in ASD.