Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies

At a time where buzzwords such as audio-visual entrainment, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), electroencephalography (EEG) or hemoencephalography (HEG) permeate our media culture (Okay, “brain exercise” at least), short of attaining a postgraduate degree in neurophysiology or imaging, it can prove quite the challenge to sort through the data and Facebook advertising – and I hear it’s no cake walk even then. With companies here and abroad making the grandiose promise “Change your brain, change your life – with a few simple sessions!” for hundreds  or thousands of dollars, we need to begin realizing our task cannot simply entail questions of which method or provider to go with, but to understand what they are as well. I’m not convinced everyone is approaching these treatments with quite enough healthy skepticism. Sure…you’re not going under the knife, but come on…you do realize in some of these they’re hooking wires up to your brain…right?
This ideal works on both ends, however. Take neurofeedback, for example. Due to the many unfortunate claims of finding the “cure” to autism or ADHD, (and somewhat failing to date), treatments like neurofeedback have from time to time been given somewhat of a bad rap. And why would it not? The pharmaceutical industry has little to gain from the moment the right person publishes the right study showing just how beneficial and life-changing (for some) these treatments really can be. Without delving too deeply just yet, here is a recent study I came across in regard to the process of learning to control one’s own brain activity. While it is essential to view everything with a skeptical eye, I have of late heard too many first-hand accounts of what neurofeedback  has done to revolutionize the lives of the afflicted to stop at a setback largely at the fault of needy headlines and faulty business marketing. Necessitated by the how of neuroscience and why of psychology, I plan on making no small task of digging deeper in the near future.

Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies


Using neurofeedback (NF), individuals can learn to modulate their own brain activity, in most cases electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythms. Although a large body of literature reports positive effects of NF training on behavior and cognitive functions, there are hardly any reports on how participants can successfully learn to gain control over their own brain activity. About one third of people fail to gain significant control over their brain signals even after repeated training sessions. The reasons for this failure are still largely unknown. In this context, we investigated the effects of spontaneous mental strategies on NF performance. Twenty healthy participants performed either a SMR (sensorimotor rhythm, 12-15 Hz) based or a Gamma (40-43 Hz) based NF training over ten sessions. After the first and the last training session, they were asked to write down which mental strategy they have used for self-regulating their EEG. After the first session, all participants reported the use of various types of mental strategies such as visual strategies, concentration, or relaxation. After the last NF training session, four participants of the SMR group reported to employ no specific strategy. These four participants showed linear improvements in NF performance over the ten training sessions. In contrast, participants still reporting the use of specific mental strategies in the last NF session showed no changes in SMR based NF performance over the ten sessions. This effect could not be observed in the Gamma group. The Gamma group showed no prominent changes in Gamma power over the NF training sessions, regardless of the mental strategies used. These results indicate that successful SMR based NF performance is associated with implicit learning mechanisms. Participants stating vivid reports on strategies to control their SMR probably overload cognitive resources, which might be counterproductive in terms of increasing SMR power.

(Taken from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, open access). The complete study may be found here.

Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies 
Silvia E. Kober, Matthias Witte, Manuel Ninaus, Christa Neuper, Guilherme Wood
Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 695. Published online 2013 October 18. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00695 PMCID: PMC3798979

Neurophysiological and behavioral responses to music therapy in vegetative and minimally conscious states

(O’Kelly J1,2, James L1, Palaniappan R3, Taborin J4, Fachner J5, Magee WL6)

1 Research Department, Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, London, UK; 2 Dept. of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark; 3 Faculty of Science and Engineering, Wolverhampton University, Wolverhampton, UK; 4 Dept. of Neuroscience, King’s College London, London, UK; 5 Depat. of Music and Performing Arts, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK; 6 Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Assessment of awareness for those with disorders of consciousness is a challenging undertaking, due to the complex presentation of the population. Debate surrounds whether behavioral assessments provide greatest accuracy in diagnosis compared to neuro-imaging methods, and despite developments in both, misdiagnosis rates remain high. Music therapy may be effective in the assessment and rehabilitation with this population due to effects of musical stimuli on arousal, attention, and emotion, irrespective of verbal or motor deficits. However, an evidence base is lacking as to which procedures are most effective. To address this, a neurophysiological and behavioral study was undertaken comparing electroencephalogram (EEG), heart rate variability, respiration, and behavioral responses of 20 healthy subjects with 21 individuals in vegetative or minimally conscious states (VS or MCS). Subjects were presented with live preferred music and improvised music entrained to respiration (procedures typically used in music therapy), recordings of disliked music, white noise, and silence. ANOVA tests indicated a range of significant responses (p = 0.05) across healthy subjects corresponding to arousal and attention in response to preferred music including concurrent increases in respiration rate with globally enhanced EEG power spectra responses (p = 0.05-0.0001) across frequency bandwidths. Whilst physiological responses were heterogeneous across patient cohorts, significant post hoc EEG amplitude increases for stimuli associated with preferred music were found for frontal midline theta in six VS and four MCS subjects, and frontal alpha in three VS and four MCS subjects (p = 0.05-0.0001). Furthermore, behavioral data showed a significantly increased blink rate for preferred music (p = 0.029) within the VS cohort. Two VS cases are presented with concurrent changes (p = 0.05) across measures indicative of discriminatory responses to both music therapy procedures. A third MCS case study is presented highlighting how more sensitive selective attention may distinguish MCS from VS. The findings suggest that further investigation is warranted to explore the use of music therapy for prognostic indicators, and its potential to support neuroplasticity in rehabilitation programs.

For our Italian friends:

La determinazione dello stato di consapevolezza nei pazienti che soffrono di riduzione della coscienza è un compito estremamente difficile, dovuta all’eterogeneità dei casi. Esiste un dibattito rispetto a quale indagine fornisca la maggiore accuratezza della diagnosi: indagine comportamentale rispetto ai metodi di neuroimmagine. Nonostante i notevoli passi avanti fatti in entrambi i campi, gli errori di diagnosi restano piuttosto alti. La musicoterapia può essere efficace nell’indagine e nella riabilitazione di queste persone grazie all’effetto della musica su stato di vigilanza, attenzione ed emozioni, indipendentemente dai deficit motori e verbali del paziente. In ogni caso, non esistono studi basati sull’evidenza che indichino quale dei due metodi sia più efficace. Per questo gli Autori propongono uno studio neurofisiologico e comportamentale che compara l’EEG, la variabilità del battito cardiaco, la respirazione e le risposte comportamentali di 20 individui sani con 21 pazienti in stato vegetativo o di minima coscienza (VS o MCS). Ai soggetti è stata presentata una selezione della musica preferita e di musica improvvisata adeguata al ritmo respiratorio (una proceduta tipica della musicoterapia), registrazioni di musica sgradita, rumore bianco e silenzio. L’analisi ANOVA indica un range di risposte rilevanti (p=0.05) tra i volontari sani corrispondente a un incremento dell’attenzione in risposta alla musica preferita, che include l’aumento concomitante del ritmo respiratorio e della potenza dello spettro EEG (p=0.05-0.0001) in tutte le bande di frequenza. Mentre le risposte fisiologiche erano eterogenee nella coorte dei pazienti, si notava un miglioramento significativo post hoc nell’ampiezza dell’EEG in risposta alla musica preferita, evidente nel theta della linea frontale mediana in sei VS, e quattro MCS e della banda alfa frontale in tre VS e quattro MCS (p=0.05-0.0001). Inoltre, i dati comportamentali mostravano un significativo incremento nel ritmo di battito delle ciglia in presenza della musica preferita (p=0.029) nei pazienti VS. Due casi in VS hanno evidenziato cambiamenti correlati fra le due misure che dimostrano una reattività a entrambi i tipi di musicoterapia (p=0.05). Un terzo caso MCS è stato illustrato per sottolineare come l’attenzione selettiva possa distinguere gli MCS dai VS. Questi dati suggeriscono che sia auspicabile un approfondimento degli studi per esplorare l’uso della musicoterapia come indicatore prognostico, e valutarne l’uso come supporto per la neuroplasticità in riabilitazione.

(Open access article, creative commons, December 2013).  

Neuroscientist David Sulzer turns brain waves into music

Thanks so much to Vicky Williamson for bringing this to my attention. More and more these days are professors of neuroscience and music finding ways to tap into the unknown capabilities of what we can accomplish not just psychologically, but neurologically with music. Like so many other projects happening at present, I found this fascinating:

Columbia neurophysiologist David Sulzer took his first piano lessons at the age of 11 and was playing his violin and guitar in bars by age 15. Later he gained a national following as a founder of the Soldier String Quartet and the Thai Elephant Orchestra—an actual orchestra of elephants in northern Thailand—and for playing with the likes of Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and the jazz great Tony Williams.

It was only after arriving at Columbia, however, that the musician-turned-research-scientist embarked on perhaps his most exotic musical venture—using a computer to translate the spontaneous patterns of his brain waves into music.

With the help of Brad Garton, director of Columbia’s Computer Music Center, Sulzer has performed his avant-garde brain wave music in solo recitals and with musical ensembles.

Last spring, Sulzer presented a piece entitled Reading Stephen Colbert at a conference in New York City sponsored by Columbia and the Paris-based IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a global center of musical research.

Sulzer, a professor in the departments of Psychiatry, Neurology and Pharmacology, wore electrodes attached to his scalp to measure voltage fluctuations in his brain as he sat in a chair reading a book by the comedian. Those fluctuations were fed into a computer program created by Garton, which transformed them into musical notes. “I tried to forget I was in front of people and they could see my brain waves on a screen and listen to the music as I read the book,” says Sulzer. “Luckily, the book was funny and I laughed, which changed the music.”

The Brainwave Music Project grew out of an invitation in 2008 from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to lecture on how the brain interprets rhythm. Sulzer, whose main research focus is the chemical transmission of brain signals and the neuroscience of neurological and psychiatric disorders, had heard about measurement of brain waves of drummers playing together using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain. The longer the drummers jammed, the more their brain waves began to synch up. Why not see if the musicians could use their own brain waves to make new music together?

Sulzer asked Garton, who had spent his younger years in New York’s downtown music scene and had followed the neuroscientist’s previous career with the Soldier String Quartet, if he knew a graduate student who might be interested in helping him develop software for his lecture. Garton volunteered to do it himself.  “I knew the digital synthesis and audio side of things, he had the knowledge of neurotechnology and brain waves—it was the perfect match,” Garton says.

When brain cells are active, they communicate with the cells around them by emitting electrical spikes that vary in frequency and amplitude. A single sensory stimulus will cause a series of brain cells to fire, which will excite the cells around them and lead to a chain reaction of cell firings that ripple through the brain like the waves that ripple out from a pebble tossed into a pond.

“I take the signals, digitize them and then turn them into signals in the computer that control the sound,” Garton says. “A project where you can make sound just by thinking about it is pretty cool. It’s great fun.”

Garton and Sulzer have tried a number of ways to make music from these waves. Sometimes they program specific musical notes to play every time the EEG sensors detect brain cells firing at specific frequencies or amplitudes. Other times, they assign an array of prerecorded sounds or notes to specific neural patterns.

Sulzer cautions against taking the project too seriously. It’s more of a “didactic tool,” he says, that he usually pairs with his pop science lectures on brainwaves and brain function or with Garton’s on computerized music.

“Part of it is didactic, part of it is satirical,” Sulzer says. “Sometimes I’m making fun of attitudes towards music. For instance, I’ll say ‘this shows you can be a conscious composer’ because you can try to manipulate brain waves. Or you can be an unconscious composer. Reading Stephen Colbert is an example of that.” Sulzer is skeptical the technique will ever result in better music than that which the brain is already capable of producing through the tongue and fingers.

“Trying to play music using brain waves is like trying to play the piano using boxing gloves,” he says. “The level of detail that the current brain scanning technology can pick up is simply too crude.”

The full article may be found at: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-08-neuroscientist-david-sulzer-brain-music.html#jCp