A study conducted in the UK taught a group of autistic adolescents how to play drums, and observed that it improves behaviour and brain function.

A new study conducted in the UK has revealed that drumming for just 90 minutes each week can improve the quality of life for young people diagnosed with autism.

It was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

The study involved teaching adolescents who did not have prior knowledge of drumming for eight weeks. The control group did not take any drumming classes. Scientists discovered that learning to play drums changed young people’s brain activity.

Noting that previous studies have demonstrated the positive role drum training can play in improving behavioural outcomes for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioural difficulties, the authors wrote: “To date, none of these studies has explored how these behavioural changes translate at the neural level.”

They added: “Our study provides strong evidence that drumming not only reduces hyperactivity and inattention in autistic adolescents but also strengthens functional connectivity in brain regions responsible for inhibitory control and action outcome monitoring.”

The study was conducted by researchers from the universities of Chichester, King’s College London, Hartpury, and Essex working under their collective group the Clem Burke Drumming Project. The project is named after its co-founding member and famed Blondie musician who has been playing with the band since the 1970s.

Co-author Marcus Smith, a Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Chichester, said: “These findings provide direct evidence that learning to drum leads to positive changes in brain function and behaviour among autistic adolescents.

“We are now sharing our results with education providers in special and mainstream UK schools who are responsible for the physical and mental development of vulnerable people.”

The authors define autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by deficits in social communication and social interactions as well as a range of restricted, repetitive interests, activities, and behaviours.”

The researchers recruited volunteers between the ages of 16 and 20 and had them go through a drumming assessment and an MRI scan before and after the intervention. The researchers also asked the young people’s guardians about recent behavioural difficulties.

They split the volunteers into two groups: one group of 19 youths who received two 45-minute drumming lessons a week, and a control group of 17 youths.

The experts hypothesised that “changes in hyperactivity, attentional difficulties, problem behaviours, and repetitive and restricted behaviours would be observed in the drum group.” 

They also hypothesised that “co-occurring changes in [functional connectivity] in brain areas responsible for attentional focus and inhibitory control would be identified following drum training.”

The results were quite in line with the hypotheses: participants who improved their drumming skills “showed fewer signs of hyperactivity, inattention and repetitive behaviours and demonstrated better control of their emotions,” a news release noted.

Prof Steve Draper, Academic Dean at Hartpury University and report co-author, said the paper represents “a landmark moment” as the scientific team begins, through advanced imaging, to understand why drumming is such a “profound stimulus”.

He added: “Over a number of years we have been made aware of cases of drumming benefiting individuals with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, and have subsequently worked with a number of individuals, schools and projects where we have seen first-hand the effects.”

The authors discovered that after the participants in the drumming group were trained, the synchronicity between brain regions responsible for inhibitory control improved, preventing impulsivity.

According to co-author Dr Ruth Lowry from the University of Essex, this emphasises the central role of the prefrontal cortex in regulating motor impulsivity.

She added: “The paper provides us with the first evidence of neurological adaptations from learning to play the drums, specifically for adolescents with an ASD diagnosis. This study endorses the changes we have measured and the observations of teachers and parents towards improvements to social skills, inhibitory control and attention.”

This study is the latest project by the Clem Burke Drumming Project, which has been investigating the effects of drumming on brain development. It was funded by the charity, Waterloo Foundation.

Renowned imaging scientist Prof Steven Williams from King’s College London, associate of the Clem Burke project, added: “Drumming not only improves the ability to delay the onset of motor responses in autistic adolescents but also reduces hyperactivity and attentional difficulties. Complementary functional imaging allowed us to visualise changes in brain circuits responsible for self-regulation and motor impulsivity.”

Lead author Marie-Stephanie Cahart, a doctoral candidate from King’s College London, said: “This study not only revealed an improvement in behavioural outcomes in autistic adolescents following drum training, but also sheds light on associated changes in brain function. Increased synchronised activity was observed between brain regions that support mental wellbeing and help navigate social relationships.”

The Science Behind the Sticks Conference,” will take place on July 13, 2022 at the University of Chichester, offering insights into the phenomenon of how drumming affects brain activity. Attendance is free.

The scientists who researched the link between drumming and increased well being in autistic individuals are planning to expand their research into other brain functions involved with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, dementia, and traumatic brain injury.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies