Our question is:
How can we use music to improve language/speech ability and general condition of patients with autism and dementia (both diseases that impair language)?

We came up with two solutions:
1) Develop algorithms that personalize songs for dementia patients to alleviate symptoms.
2) Enroll students with autism spectrum disorder in music education at an early age.

We have refined our approach after considering the following expert feedback from Yiran Chen, a postgraduate student interested in the intersection of music and language.

  1. She suggested we focus on improving social behaviors in ASD patients. We read “Effects of a Music Therapy Group Intervention on Enhancing Social Skills in Children with Autism” by A. Blythe LaGasse of Colorado State University. This article confirmed our belief that music therapy has positive impacts on social behaviors, specifically in regards to join attention and eye gaze with other people. The latter will help ASD patients build their reservoir of communication skills. Taking Ms. Chen’s advice, we in our prototype have included a virtual therapist to converse with the ASD patients. Their conversation would include lyric analysis specifically geared towards labelling emotions. This conversation will help ASD patients improve their social skills, starting with joint attention and eye gaze.
  2. Yiran Chen also informed us that interpersonal synchrony increases prosocial behavior. In other words, both adults and children who move together to a shared musical beat synchronously are more likely to engage in prosocial and altruistic behavior. We have incorporated this research into our app by defining a “video chatting” in which patients can connect online, bounce together to a beat, or even have a capella sessions. We believe that the virtuality and the personalization of our app is what makes it unique and accessible, as many patients do not have the luxury of being surrounded by similar patients and can often feel isolated in their homes.
  3. In connection with the aforementioned papers, another paper Ms.Chen recommended to us, “Neural Systems for Speech and song in Autism” by Lai at al. further supports music therapy for language and communication through engaging interpersonal responses, increasing joint-attention, and “mirror neuron responses in the inferior frontal gyrus during verbal communication coupled with musical tasks.” (Gold et al.) The paper explained its procedural limitations such as not being able to use familiar yet non-standardized stimuli specific to individual subjects (parents’ voices and the patient’s favorite songs) and a possible interaction of the silent video with the auditory stimulus. Through this restriction, we thought we could make an addition to the “video chatting” function. While we understand that this is a long shot, we could possibly record and analyze the parents’ voices in terms of their tone and pitch. Then, when using the video chat function with the others, we thought the ASD patients would be at more ease if the voices of strangers can be converted to those they are familiar with.