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Impaired pitch perception and memory in congenital amusia: the deficit starts in the auditory cortex

Philippe Albouy, Jérémie Mattout, Romain Bouet, Emmanuel Maby, Gaëtan Sanchez, Pierre-Emmanuel Aguera, Sébastien Daligault, Claude Delpuech, Olivier Bertrand, Anne Caclin, Barbara Tillmann
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt082 1639-1661 First published online: 24 April 2013

Summary

Congenital amusia is a lifelong disorder of music perception and production. The present study investigated the cerebral bases of impaired pitch perception and memory in congenital amusia using behavioural measures, magnetoencephalography and voxel-based morphometry. Congenital amusics and matched control subjects performed two melodic tasks (a melodic contour task and an easier transposition task); they had to indicate whether sequences of six tones (presented in pairs) were the same or different. Behavioural data indicated that in comparison with control participants, amusics’ short-term memory was impaired for the melodic contour task, but not for the transposition task. The major finding was that pitch processing and short-term memory deficits can be traced down to amusics’ early brain responses during encoding of the melodic information. Temporal and frontal generators of the N100m evoked by each note of the melody were abnormally recruited in the amusic brain. Dynamic causal modelling of the N100m further revealed decreased intrinsic connectivity in both auditory cortices, increased lateral connectivity between auditory cortices as well as a decreased right fronto-temporal backward connectivity in amusics relative to control subjects. Abnormal functioning of this fronto-temporal network was also shown during the retention interval and the retrieval of melodic information. In particular, induced gamma oscillations in right frontal areas were decreased in amusics during the retention interval. Using voxel-based morphometry, we confirmed morphological brain anomalies in terms of white and grey matter concentration in the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right superior temporal gyrus in the amusic brain. The convergence between functional and structural brain differences strengthens the hypothesis of abnormalities in the fronto-temporal pathway of the amusic brain. Our data provide first evidence of altered functioning of the auditory cortices during pitch perception and memory in congenital amusia. They further support the hypothesis that in neurodevelopmental disorders impacting high-level functions (here musical abilities), abnormalities in cerebral processing can be observed in early brain responses.

  • congenital amusia
  • auditory cortex
  • short-term memory
  • magneto-encephalography
  • voxel-based morphometry
  • Abbreviations
    MEG
    magnetoencephalography
    VBM
    voxel-based morphometry
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