Objectives: The first objective of this study was to investigate the neural correlates of emotion recognition in music in high-functioning adults with ASD. Secondly, we investigated how potential differences in neural activation are related to autistic traits.
Methods: 19 adults with ASD and 21 typically developing adults were scanned using fMRI, while listening to happy, sad and neutral musical excerpts. All participants filled out the Autism Quotient questionnaire (AQ1), giving a total score and five sub-scores; social skills, attention switching, attention to detail, imagination and communication.
Results: The ASD-group rated happy music as slightly less happy than did the TD-group, and showed increased brain activity in response to happy music in posterior cingulate (PCC), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), postcentral gyrus, inferior temporal gyrus and cerebellum. The increased brain activation in these areas was positively correlated with total AQ-score and especially with impaired social skills.
Conclusions: The increased brain activity found in the ASD group in PCC and mPFC is probably associated with memory functions, suggesting that these areas support a compensatory mechanism for recognizing emotions in music in people with ASD. The remaining areas are previously found to be related to increased motor activity and physiological arousal. Thus, we hypothesize that the ASD group show increased physiological arousal in response to happy music, but rely on learned strategies based on previously heard melodies to a greater extent than do typically developed controls. The increased brain activity found in ASDs correlated with impaired social skills, suggesting that social skills are critical for intact emotion recognition and processing of music.
References: Baron-Cohen, S., Hoekstra, R. A., Knickmeyer, R., & Wheelwright, S. (2006). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ)--adolescent version. J Autism Dev Disord, 36(3), 343-350. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0073-6
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