Playing the drums could significantly help children and teenagers with autism. Some benefits include improved gross and fine motor skills, concentration, emotional management, memory, impulse control, communication, and creativity. This article delves into some of the neural changes elicited by drumming that underpin some of these benefits. Through examining these findings, we would be able to better understand how drumming could be so beneficial.
Below are some ways drumming can modify the brain:
1. Increases Functional Connectivity in the Frontal Lobe Regions
The frontal lobe, located at the forefront of our brains, is the region that governs decision making, creativity, communication, memory, and motor skills. Autistic children and adolescents often have abnormal frontal lobe development, explaining why they may sometimes struggle in these areas.
Functional connectivity is a measure of how strongly the activity between two brain regions correlates over time. Research has shown that drumming increases functional connectivity within two regions of the frontal lobe: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area that governs alertness and attention) and the inferior frontal gyrus (an area that governs inhibition, attentional control, and speech.) As a result, the frontal lobe strengthens, in turn improving executive function.
2. Engages the Mirror Neuron System
The mirror neurons are a class of neurons that enables language comprehension, speech perception, imitation, and empathy. They fire when we perform actions or observe another person doing so. Psychologists believe abnormalities in the mirror neuron system are linked to autism.
When one plays the drums, areas of the brain that are associated with imitation are activated. Those areas of the brain are densely populated with mirror neurons. The act of drumming links the perception of sounds with the action of striking the drum. The combination of auditory and motor stimulation results in the activation of mirror neurons.
The activation of the mirror neuron system makes autistic teens more comfortable in sharing and expressing their emotions. It also helps them follow instructions more effectively.
3. Increases Cortical Thickness of the Cerebellum
The cerebellum is the portion of the brain located at the back of the head, responsible for balance, coordination, movement, and memory. Recent studies also supply evidence for the cerebellum’s role in emotion and cognition.
Neuroscientists agree that a strong link exists between cerebellar damage and autism. For example, patterns of overactivity in the cerebellum are linked to patterns of fidgeting and hyperactivity. Studies have shown that drumming helps strengthen the cerebellum by increasing its cortical thickness and inducing plasticity. As a result, motor and impulse control abilities are enhanced.
4. Allows Greater Hemispheric Synchronization
Our brains are split into two parts: the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is responsible for analytical skills, while the right brain is responsible for creativity. The two parts of the brain are connected by nerve fibers called the corpus callosum which facilitate interhemispheric communication.
Morphological studies indicate the corpus callosum is smaller in individuals with autism, causing weaker connections between the two hemispheres. As a result, skills that involve both hemispheres of the brain, like the ability to communicate or concentrate, are impaired.
Drumming is a form of bi-lateral training; it exercises both the left and the right hands. Regular practice of hand-to-hand coordination increases the thickness of the corpus callosum, improving the communication between the two hemispheres. In addition, drumming synchronizes the brain waves of both hemispheres, allowing the brain to operate as a cohesive whole. In turn, feelings of happiness and creativity will flourish.
Becker, Esther B E, and Catherine J Stoodley. “Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Cerebellum.” International Review of Neurobiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24290381/#:~:text=Cerebellar%20findings%20in%20autism%20suggest,implications%20beyond%20the%20motor%20domain.
Bruchhage, Muriel, et al. “Cerebellar Involvement in Autism and ADHD.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29891077/.
Bruchhage, Muriel, et al. “Drum Training Induces Long-Term Plasticity in the Cerebellum and …” Scientific Reports, ResearchGate GmbH, June 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342360173_Drum_training_induces_long-term_plasticity_in_the_cerebellum_and_connected_cortical_thickness.
Cahart, Marie-Stephanie, et al. “The Effect of Learning to Drum on Behavior and Brain Function in Autistic Adolescents.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Science, 31 May 2022, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2106244119.
Kilner, J M, and R N Lemon. “What We Know Currently about Mirror Neurons.” Current Biology : CB, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Dec. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3898692/#:~:text=Mirror%20neurons%20are%20a%20class,act%20performed%20by%20another%20individual.
Margari, Lucia, et al. “Frontal Lobe Metabolic Alterations in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A 1H-Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 July 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6055909/#:~:text=5-,The%20involvement%20of%20the%20frontal%20lobe%20in%20the%20neurobiology%20of,are%20both%20compromised%20in%20ASD.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Corpus Callosum.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Apr. 2009, https://www.britannica.com/science/corpus-callosum.
Wan, Catherine Y, et al. “From Music Making to Speaking: Engaging the Mirror Neuron System in Autism.” Brain Research Bulletin, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 May 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996136/.
Wolff, Jason J., et al. “Altered Corpus Callosum Morphology Associated with Autism over the First 2 Years of Life.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 3 May 2015, https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/7/2046/254341.