New Study Suggests that Music Training Supports Self Organisation!

I came across an interesting new piece of research into the benefits of musical training the other day on a music teacher Isla's Guitarfriend’s website – click here to see the article. This functional MRI study suggests that there is a link between early music training and improved executive functioning in both adults and children. So what does that really mean?! Read on to find out…

What is Executive Function?

Basically, Executive Function is the brain’s system for planning stuff, controlling inhibitions, thinking flexibly and generating new ideas. I like to think about it as a wee ‘executive’ guy in a pin stripe suit who sits in the front of your brain organising things. Executive function allows you to do 4 key things:

  • Plan stuff – for example, planning ahead for a PE lesson and organising all the things you need to pack into your bag the night before, planning a shopping list or planning an essay.
  • Transfer your attention between tasks – so that you can finish one task then switch your attention on to the next task which might be totally different from the first.
  • Inhibit inappropriate impulses – Executive function is what stops you from reading a text that makes your phone vibrate in the middle of a conversation with your mother in law. It also stops you doing things like pointing out the massive spot on the end of your friend’s nose or telling your teacher that her new haircut looks like someone put a bowl on her head and cut round it with their eyes closed!
  • Be creative - for example coming up with a new recipe idea, thinking of a fun day out for your friends or writing a song.

Who has difficulty with Executive Function?

Probably the biggest groups of people who typically have issues with weak executive function throughout their lives are those who have a diagnosis of Autism (ASD), Asperger’s Syndrome and/or ADHD. Other groups are also affected though,for example, those with head injuries or degenerative brain conditions. Even without a specific diagnosis, you can still have weak executive function.

What Does the Boston study say about Music Training and Executive Functioning?

First and foremost, no-one is saying that if you get your autistic child into music training they will be cured of all problems relating to executive function! Do not misunderstand this as yet another ‘miracle cure’! What the researchers found is that adult musicians and musically trained children got better scores on tests of executive function than a non-musically trained control group. The researchers carried out functional MRI scans (also called fMRI – click here to learn more) on musically trained children & controls while they completed a test of executive function skills. The scans showed more activity in the brain areas associated with executive function in the group of musically trained children than in the brains of the non-musically trained control group.

While this study does show evidence of better executive function in musically trained people, it does not establish whether the improved skills are definitely due to the musical training OR whether people with better executive functioning are simply drawn to learning music. More investigation is required to clear this up! Whatever the outcome of this line of research, the benefits of music training for a whole range of cognitive skills, including language development, are well documented. So expose your child to music when you can. If they are interested in learning to play something, let them have a go. erhaps pay a visit to my friends at Morningside School of Music for some lessons. Apart from anything else, MUSIC IS FUN!

MMR and Autism

In light of the recent measles outbreak in Wales, I feel compelled to post an article on the subject of the MMR vaccine and autism. The first and most important thing to note here is that there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE of any link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. Please do take the advice of your local health board and make sure you have your child vaccinated. Measles is a serious disease with a high risk of nasty complications many of which are life changing (for example, deafness) or life threatening (for example, meningitis). No-one wants this for their child.

The reason that vaccination rates dropped dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s is a small and now thoroughly discredited study by Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues which resulted in a media frenzy around the suggestion that there may be a causal link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. The key things to note about this study are:

  • It was a fundamentally flawed piece of work with a tiny research group of 12 children.
  • It did not even set out to study the effects of the MMR vaccine, a possible link was merely implied in the discussion.
  • Most of the authors have now retracted their involvement in the study.

Since the Wakefield study was published, there have been a variety of very large, scientifically sound studies which have categorically shown that the MMR vaccine is not a primary cause of autism. Key points of these studies are:

  • The number of cases of autism with and without developmental regression have continued to rise in countries like Japan where the combined MMR vaccine has been withdrawn.
  • There was no sudden jump in the number of cases of autism diagnosed after the MMR vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1988. The rise is smooth and gradual.

Almost all researchers now agree that, while autism is certainly being diagnosed more frequently, its causes are complex and unlikely to be down to one single factor, even from a genetic perspective.

You can find more information about MMR & Autism on the website of the National Autistic Society.

Interesting use of a Kinect

I was having a read of New Scientist this morning over breakfast and was intrigued by an article about using Microsoft Kinect motion sensors as a tool in the diagnosis of autism. Researchers in Minnesota are trying out software that uses Kinect motion sensors to observe and analyse the behaviour of children in a classroom with a view to automatically detecting the unusual behaviours associated with autism.

To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of automating the diagnosis of autism but then I do think that’s a VERY long way off, if it’s possible at all! Having said that, any scientifically evidenced and rigorously tested new tool is welcome.

Check out the complete article by clicking here

Increasing prevalence of autism in the USA despite phasing out of mercury-based preservatives in vaccines…

This week’s New Scientist drew my attention to a report published recently by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the prevalence of ASD in the USA. The report shows that the prevalence of autism in 14 areas of the USA has risen by 78% between 2002 and 2008. Interestingly, in these same areas and across the USA, Thiomersal, the mercury-based vaccine preservative that has been blamed by some researchers for the rising prevalence of ASD, was phased out of paediatric vaccines from the year 2000 onwards. As the children in this latest study have not been exposed to Thiomersal, the obvious conclusion is that it does not play a role in the increasing rates of diagnosis of ASD. This replicates findings from other large-scale studies carried out worldwide which have also concluded that there is no link between vaccinations and ASD.