People with Williams syndrome develop their musical skills differently

The order of acquisition of musical skills seems to be different in people with Williams syndrome | Sean Yu

Williams syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder of genetic origin that involves intellectual disability. A part of the scientific community considers that, while some areas of their cognitive functioning are damaged, others are preserved. Among the privileged areas would be those associated with music, which has helped to extend the idea that people with this syndrome have a genetic predisposition in this sense or, in other words, have an innate talent for music. However, subsequent studies have shown that such skills are not intact, concluding that their functioning is affected by the cognitive deficit that these people present.

Williams syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder of genetic origin that involves intellectual disability

For all these reasons, this syndrome has been a case of recurrent study that has served to face two almost opposite visions of cognitive development: the first is defended in innatist postures and considers that from the beginning the brain is specified in functioning modules independent that can be selectively altered or preserved; on the other hand, the neuroconstructivist approach adopts a systemic or overall vision, where different factors interact throughout the development to account for people’s cognitive functioning.

Now, research carried out at the National University of Distance Education (UNED), in collaboration with the Autonomous University of Madrid, throws new evidence in the latter direction by observing that people with Williams syndrome develop their musical skills differently from the rest.

In the majority of the population this capacity tends to increase along with the different markers of cognitive development, but this is not the case in those with the syndrome, as indicated by the results published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities. Despite the evidence that already pointed out that the musical abilities of people with Williams syndrome are not preserved, it is the first time that the magnifying glass is put into development.

Development focus

“Williams syndrome is a developmental disorder and, as such, it is in development where we have to put the focus of study, although sometimes it is forgotten or difficult to do so,” says Pastora Martínez, professor of evolutionary psychology at UNED, who has directed the investigation.

The study involved 74 children (20 of them with Williams syndrome) who performed various tests; the former were related to general cognition mechanisms, and subsequently specific activities were carried out to assess musical expertise, such as the perception of dissonance or tonal discrimination.

The new results indicate that in these people the areas of the brain associated with music are not preserved

The researchers resorted to a novel methodology to measure the development trajectory in a transversal way: “To employ this methodology it was necessary to have a sufficiently heterogeneous group since, instead of measuring the same person at different times throughout of time, we use a statistical function to infer what is happening. In this way we have managed to study the evolution of these skills over time and observe their relationship with certain cognitive areas ”explains Manuel Rodríguez, co-author of the study and researcher at the UNED.

The results also revealed other markers that indicate a different development: “It is striking to note that, in Williams syndrome, the order of acquisition of musical skills seems to be different,” says Pastora. “It is also striking to see how at some point there is a stabilization in some musical areas, despite the progress in cognitive development,” Rodríguez concludes. In the publication, the authors of the study highlight the greater scientific and social significance that the innatist postulates have traditionally had in this regard, despite the increasingly numerous evidence pointing in another direction .

Bibliographic reference

Pastora Martínez-Castilla, Manuel Rodríguez, Ruth Campos. Developmental trajectories of pitch-related music skills in children with Williams syndrome. Research in Developmental Disabilities . Vol. 51-52. (2016) 23–39. doi: 10.1016 / j.ridd.2016.01.001

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