From music making to speaking: engaging the mirror neuron system in autism

Brain Res Bull. 2010 May 31;82(3-4):161-8. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2010.04.010. Epub 2010 Apr 28.


Individuals with autism show impairments in emotional tuning, social interactions and communication. These are functions that have been attributed to the putative human mirror neuron system (MNS), which contains neurons that respond to the actions of self and others. It has been proposed that a dysfunction of that system underlies some of the characteristics of autism. Here, we review behavioral and imaging studies that implicate the MNS (or a brain network with similar functions) in sensory-motor integration and speech representation, and review data supporting the hypothesis that MNS activity could be abnormal in autism. In addition, we propose that an intervention designed to engage brain regions that overlap with the MNS may have significant clinical potential. We argue that this engagement could be achieved through forms of music making. Music making with others (e.g., playing instruments or singing) is a multi-modal activity that has been shown to engage brain regions that largely overlap with the human MNS. Furthermore, many children with autism thoroughly enjoy participating in musical activities. Such activities may enhance their ability to focus and interact with others, thereby fostering the development of communication and social skills. Thus, interventions incorporating methods of music making may offer a promising approach for facilitating expressive language in otherwise nonverbal children with autism.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Music*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Speech*