Can musical training influence brain connectivity? Evidence from diffusion tensor MRI

Brain Sci 2014 Jun 10;4(2):405-27

Can musical training influence brain connectivity? Evidence from diffusion tensor MRI

(Moore E, Shaefer RS, Bastin ME, Roberts N, Overy K)*


“In recent years, musicians have been increasingly recruited to investigate grey and white matter neuroplasticity induced by skill acquisition. The development of Diffusion Tensor Magnetic Resonance Imaging (DT-MRI) has allowed more detailed investigation of white matter connections within the brain, addressing questions about the effect of musical training on connectivity between specific brain regions. Here, current DT-MRI analysis techniques are discussed and the available evidence from DT-MRI studies into differences in white matter architecture between musicians and non-musicians is reviewed. Collectively, the existing literature tends to support the hypothesis that musical training can induce changes in cross-hemispheric connections, with significant differences frequently reported in various regions of the corpus callosum of musicians compared with non-musicians. However, differences found in intra-hemispheric fibres have not always been replicated, while findings regarding the internal capsule and corticospinal tracts appear to be contradictory. There is also recent evidence to suggest that variances in white matter structure in non-musicians may correlate with their ability to learn musical skills, offering an alternative explanation for the structural differences observed between musicians and non-musicians. Considering the inconsistencies in the current literature, possible reasons for conflicting results are offered, along with suggestions for future research in this area.”

And for our Italian friends:

In tempi recenti i musicisti sono stati sempre più spesso reclutati per indagare la neuroplasticità della sostanza grigia e bianca indotta dall’acquisizione di nuove abilità. Lo sviluppo della risonanza magnetica a tensore di diffusione (DT-MRI) ha permesso un’indagine più dettagliata delle connessioni della materia bianca all’interno del cervello, permettendo di rispondere a quesiti che interessano lo sviluppo della neuroplasticità indotta dal training musicale. In questo studio, si discutono le potenzialità di questo metodo e si evidenziano le differenze di connettività riscontrate nel cervello di musicisti e non musicisti. Globalmente, la letteratura attuale tende a supportare un aumento della connettività interemisferica indotta dalla pratica musicale, con differenze significative trovate nelle varie regioni del corpo calloso dei musicisti rispetto ai non musicisti. In ogni caso, le differenze nelle fibre intra-emisferiche non sono sempre replicate, mentre le osservazioni riferite alla capsula interna e al tratto corticospinale sembrano essere contraddittorie. Esiste anche una recente evidenza che suggerisce che la variabilità nella struttura della sostanza bianca nei non musicisti possa correlare con la loro capacità di acquisire nuove abilità musicali, offrendo una spiegazione alternativa per le differenze strutturali osservate tra i musicisti e i non musicisti. Considerando le incongruenze nella letteratura, gli Autori propongono una possibile spiegazione per i risultati contraddittori, suggerendo una strategia per la ricerca futura in quest’area delle neuroscienze.

*(1 Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), Reid School of Music, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9DF, UK; 2 SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA; 3 Centre for Clinical Brain Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, UK; 4 Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRIC), University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, UK; 5 Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD),Reid School of Music, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9DF, UK)

“Neuromusic News” edited by Fondazione Mariani.
Contributors: Luisa Lopez, Giuliano Avanzini, Maria Majno and Barbara Bernardini.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (


Music, Mind and Meaning Conference at the Peabody Institute – Day 2 Recap

1779146_10100787537465660_2115934_nMusic, Mind and Meaning Conference – Day 2

Friday commenced with the morning keynote delivered by Dr. Ani Patel, entitled Does instrumental musical training enhance the brain’s processing of speech? In Patel’s articulate and informative lecture, he began by drawing our attention to the following: “Music and language have important connections as cognitive and neural systems, and that has implications for theoretical debates about how the mind is organized – for evolutionary studies on the origins of these abilities, and practical issues about remediation of language disorders” (Patel, 2014). Though the parallels in music and language are less novel on account of the publication of his 2008 book Music, Language and the Brain, the implications of instrumental training lending to developments in language and speech are very much so. In conclusion, operating with his extended OPERA hypothesis, Patel emphasizes that regardless of the varying direction and debates these studies may undergo, “Comparative music and language research really does deepen our understanding of human communication.” (Patel, 2014).

Dr. Elizabeth Tolbert spoke next, providing an evolutionary perspective in Music, Meaning and Becoming Human. Approaching the co-evolution of music, meaning and social intelligence, Tolbert addressed music as a behavior, not object; of possessing a social ontology, and its implicational model as derived from social interaction, shared intentionality and social intelligence. Her overarching thesis states “the story of becoming human is the story of the development of a specifically human type of meaning rooted in social intelligence, and one that likely has its origins in proto-musical behavior.” (Tolbert, 2014).

IMG_9286Dr. Ian Cross’s lecture entitled Music, Participation and Interaction further expanded on the day’s existing idea of music not only as a “practice composed by the few and consumed by many,” but as the encompassment of interactive processes far beyond a role of abstract structures, symbolic realms or lofty themes. As uniquely flexible and socially cooperative creatures, humans are capable of utilizing music as not only a mode of communicating information and ideals, but at times as phatic organisms. Cross went on to explain with conviction that if this theory were more widely considered, the insinuation might result in music being given the proper chance to utilize it’s more pragmatic magic in resolving social uncertainties (and thus social anxiety), provide powerful effects on memory and social attitude, and “provide us with new perspectives on the investigation of music beyond the bounds of Western culture” (Cross, 2014).

The second keynote, Losing the Beat: A New Window on Human Rhythm was given Dr. Isabelle Peretz (University of Montreal). Peretz has published over two hundred and fifty five scientific papers regarding everything from perception, emotion and memory to singing and dancing. In Losing the Beat, Peretz explained that a defining characteristic of human interaction with music is “the identity and ability to move to the beat.” Although this universal faculty is typically formed early in life, her recent research shows that some individuals suffer from the inability to synchronize with beats in music. This disorder is referred to as beat deafness, a new form of congenital amusia. In her presentation, Peretz conveyed a strong sensibility for the cause of studying musical disorders in regard to “reverse-engineering of the musical brain” (Peretz, 2014).

IMG_9311Later in the afternoon, Andrea Halpern took the floor to share her work on auditory imagery, and to describe her study examining the neural loci of imagined music. Halpern is a pioneer in her long-standing devotion to the field from early in its development. She has contributed fundamental work on memory and perception of musical structure, including studies on earworms and the persistence of musical memories), effects of timbre and tempo change, and perception of emotion in sounded and imagined music. In her presentation Auditory Imagery: Linking Internal and External Music, Halpern presented the argument that although internal and external music experiences are distinctive encounters, they share a number of important similarities, which both musicians and nonmusicians can exploit to enhance the musical experience.

Photo 1 – Diana Hereld

Photos 2, 3 – Scott Metcalfe

Note: I must include an apology for the delay in reporting on the conference this weekend. I simply found myself so wonderfully overwhelmed with information (but overwhelmed regardless) that I was unsure how to encapsulate the day’s culmination of so many brilliant minds in presentation of their most recent work. As a result, I’ve decided to report individually on each of them in the near future. A few other outlets have picked up specific coverage, and I will advise as those are released. I will also be sharing a summation of the conference’s concluding rountable featuring the speakers and performers, which was truly a thing to behold.

What Dreams May Come : Neural Substrates in Resilience

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

On December 5, 2013, Neuron published case study “The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Cingulate Gyrus.” Although researchers at Stanford University came across these intriguing results by accident, the implications may prove in the future to be of some consequence. In order to gain knowledge in the neurological source of seizures, study co-author Vinitha Rangarajan explains they were in the process of delivering an electrical charge to the anterior midcingulate cortex region (involved in emotion, pain and cognitive processing) of two persons with epilepsy when the finding occurred. When the charge was delivered, both individuals experienced increase in heart rate, and various sensations in their chest and neck. These physiological sensations were accompanied by a psychological expectation of challenge, and the desire to surmount it.

When, in following, the patients only thought their brains were being stimulated (but were not), they did not experience any of the prior symptoms. This process of assumed stimulation was repeated 5mm away, with the same result – an absence of any or the previous physical or psychological effects. In a press release, lead author Dr. Parvizi explains “Our study pinpoints the precise anatomical coordinates of neuronal populations, and their associated network, that support complex psychological and behavioral states associated with perseverance.” Dissimilarities in this neuronal structure may be tied to innate differences in our capacity to cope and endure amid trying circumstances.

The study highlights dictate:[i]

  • Electrical stimulation of the anterior cingulate region performed in two subjects
  • A stereotyped set of cognitive and autonomic changes was elicited in both subjects
  • This included feeling of anticipated challenge and strong motivation to overcome it
  • Site of stimulation in both subjects was a core node of the brain’s salience network


Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is known to be involved in functions such as emotion, pain, and cognitive control. While studies in humans and nonhuman mammals have advanced our understanding of ACC function, the subjective correlates of ACC activity have remained largely unexplored. In the current study, we show that electrical charge delivery in the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC) elicits autonomic changes and the expectation of an imminent challenge coupled with a determined attitude to overcome it. Seed-based, resting-state connectivity analysis revealed that the site of stimulation in both patients was at the core of a large-scale distributed network linking aMCC to the frontoinsular and frontopolar as well as some subcortical regions. This report provides compelling, first-person accounts of electrical stimulation of this brain network and suggests its possible involvement in psychopathological conditions that are characterized by a reduced capacity to endure psychological or physical distress.

In brief departure, I am reminded of William James’ thoughts on the notion of the “threshhold.”

Recent psychology has found great use for the word ‘threshold’ as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small differences in any order of sensation we say he has a low ‘difference-threshold’- his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a ‘pain-threshold,’ a ‘fear-threshold,’ a ‘misery-threshold,’ and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness.[ii]

What is it that allows some individuals to fall off the horse fifty times, only to get back up fifty one? To attend one hundred grueling auditions whilst retaining the hope and inertia to continue showing up? To find love and then betrayal, and yet continue to open one’s heart to the vulnerabilities of emotion? Findings such as these in neuroscience are critical to the understanding of pain, fear, and crisis thresholds, and leave many open pathways for discovery in the realm of physical and psychological resilience.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.


[i] Parvizi J, Rangarajan V, Shirer W, et al. The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Neuron. 2013.

[ii] The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Longmans, Green, 1916. Originally published in 1902.

what should we do with our brain – a metaphorical critique

“The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors.” [1]  neural pathways

One of the first handlings of this idiom occurred in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics: “Metaphor is the transference of a name from the object to which it has a natural application…” (Aristotle, Poetics, 21). More recently, individuals such as I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and Max Black have made consequential advances in the field of metaphorical criticism, enabling its use to aid heavily in ornamentation and decoration, as structuring principle and discovery and description of the truth.[2]

According to Richards, all thought is metaphoric because when individuals attribute meaning, they are “simply seeing in one context an aspect similar to one [they] encountered in an earlier context.”[3] Though the work of theorists including Michael Osborn and Robert L. Ivie, we have a better understanding of how language relates us to reality, and how we as humans constitute reality through our use of symbols. When we process symbols to better understand reality, we are often using the metaphor. Phenomenological anomalies become accessible to us through the development of a physical materialism that often comes to life via symbols. When we attribute names or symbols to these phenomena, we are using the metaphor.

Along with the above, a number of others have stressed the importance of the metaphor. Nietzsche argued that it is simply the way in which we encounter the world: “A nerve-stimulus, first transformed into percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one.”[4] In these viewpoints, metaphor occurs prior to and generates the discovery of ideas.

Foss explains a great example of this usage in Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice via the metaphor that “time is money.” By using terminology such as “I’ve invested a lot of time in someone,” “You need to budget your time” and “this gadget will save you time” we begin to equate time through a financial viewpoint; it now shares its level of worth with money. In metaphoric criticism, Max Black has developed an influential method known as interaction theory which juxtaposes two terms in the metaphor generally regarded to belong to two differing classes of experience. The first term is called the tenor, principal subject, or focus, while the second term is called the vehicle, secondary subject, or frame. For example, “The brain is a machine” is a metaphor for which brain is the tenor, and machine is the frame. The process from there then is to discriminate what traits are commonplace by the tenor and vehicle, and form a type of discerning argument. As the associated characteristics of the tenor and vehicle interact, some are accentuated while others are contained. As one goes through this progression of deconstructing tenor and vehicle of the metaphor, it becomes apparent that the metaphor serves an argumentative purpose: metaphor constitutes argument.[5]

To choose a common metaphor and artifact to further describe this process, the human brain has been the target of metaphoric assignments for quite some time: mirror, projector, computer, economy. (Tabbi, 1998) Others have termed the brain central telephone exchange, machine, and even government. While some illustrations appear more accurate than others, there are those who feel as a society that we’ve sorely missed the mark. In Catherine Malabou’s innovative work What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008) she issues the challenge of deconstructing what we’ve always thought of our brains, and bestows an even greater one: what should we use it for?

Malabou begins the work by repetitiously stating “Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it.” The concept of consciousness is paramount to her: she not only calls attention to the many cities at work neurologically, but the fact that we do not know it. From “know thyself” forward, awareness has been the crux of academic and technological progress. Malabou’s critique of our neuronal dogma is an attempt not only to break away from the ideological presuppositions the field of neuroscience currently includes, but a call to become conscious of them-and of ourselves.

The first method of metaphoric criticism we may employ includes simply dissecting the metaphor. How does it function? In which way is Malabou trying to shake the current opinion of its role? Previously (as mentioned above) common symbols used for the brain include computer, central telephone exchange and machine. However, with Malabou’s concept of plasticity, the rigidity of these allegories will no longer suffice. Machines, computers and central telephone exchanges have a control center; an unyielding and stiff method of prescribing action and processing information. Plasticity is rigidity’s direct anonym, and as we have seen that metaphor not only tells a story but constitutes an argument, new metaphors must come into play. Our brains are no longer known to be entirely genetically determined, static or even simply flexible. “Plasticity, in effect, is not flexibility. Let us not forget that plasticity is a mechanism for adapting, while flexibility is a mechanism for submitting.”[6]  We must ascertain a new meaning, and this is Malabou’s challenge. She must use a metaphoric criticism to tear down the current views and instill the new.

We have now seen how the tenor and vehicle of “brain as machine” will no longer suffice. Let’s take a look at what Malabou uses as alternative: brain as plastic. Taken from the Greek plassein, to mold, plasticity has two basic definitions: one is to receive form, and one is to give form. “Plasticity in the nervous system means an alteration in structure or function brought about by development, experience or injury.”[7]Instead of mindlessly accumulating new metaphors for our brain, Malabou relies on the fact that we are the minds who make the metaphors, and sets out to explain just why the old metaphoric arguments won’t work. She offers perspective and a choice to the audience, just as Foss speaks of in Rhetorical Criticism, “If the audience finds the associated characteristics acceptable and sees the appropriateness of linking the two systems of characteristics, the audience accepts the argument.” In the context of modern day capitalism, Malabou creates a fantastic charge and call to consciousness, taking aide from European metaphysics, political engagement and neuroscience. By changing the terms (linguistically, semantically and literally) of the game, Malabou effectively provides a metaphoric critique to the prevailing comprehension of the function of the human brain.

In conclusion, a metaphoric criticism is best employed here simply because it is what the author employs herself. As Foss further states in Rhetorical Criticism, “Whatever metaphor is used to label and experience a phenomenon, then, suggests evaluations of it and appropriate behavior in response.” The old metaphors used suggest a worldview of a time passed, before the age of functional and real-time neurological imaging. The new formation of the model of our brain must be in line with the modern self: dynamic, transforming and revolutionary. We can no longer think of our brains, our neuronal selves, as but flexible and anonymous; as machine. We must affirm our capacity for change and confess our plasticity: evolutionary, adaptive, explosive. We must no longer consent to depression via disaffiliation; to be “blind to our own cinema.” Our brains tell us a story-whether we choose to listen or not. Karl Marx once stated “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it.” As Malabou so eloquently proves throughout her work that a simple metaphor does not suffice and thus hinders a proper understanding for the plastic brain, she relies on concepts such as ecological, self-creating and emancipatory instead. Plasticity cannot be domesticated. The brain is ever-changing; so then must our conception of it be also.

“…At bottom, neuronal man has not known how to speak of himself. It is time to free his speech.”

-Catherine Malabou

[1] (Jeannerod, 2004).

[2] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 359

[3] Ibid, p. 359

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, trans. Maximilian A. Mugge, II. New York: Macmillan, 1911., p. 178

[5] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 361

[6] Marc Jeannerod, 2004.

[7] See the entry “Plasticity in the Nervous System,” in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, ed. Richard L. Gregory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 623.

Music training for the development of speech segmentation

The latest from my friends at Neuromusic News (ed. by Fondazione Mariani).

Contributors: Luisa Lopez, Giuliano Avanzini, Maria Majno and Barbara Bernardini.

This week’s digest regarding music and speech includes much of the same of what we already know: the implications of musical exposure in children with speech perception issues grow greater by the day. This study specifically compares the use of music as opposed to the use of art in 8 year old children.

Cereb Cortex 2012 Jul 10

Music training for the development of speech segmentation

François C, Chobert J, Besson M, Schön D
Institut de neurosciences des systèmes, INSERM and Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France

The role of music training in fostering brain plasticity and developing high cognitive skills, notably linguistic abilities, is of great interest from both a scientific and a societal perspective. Here, we report results of a longitudinal study over 2 years using both behavioral and electrophysiological measures and a test-training-retest procedure to examine the influence of music training on speech segmentation in 8-year-old children. Children were pseudo-randomly assigned to either music or painting training and were tested on their ability to extract meaningless words from a continuous flow of nonsense syllables. While no between-group differences were found before training, both behavioral and electrophysiological measures showed improved speech segmentation skills across testing sessions for the music group only. These results show that music training directly causes facilitation in speech segmentation, thereby pointing to the importance of music for speech perception and more generally for children’s language development. Finally these results have strong implications for promoting the development of music-based remediation strategies for children with language-based learning impairments.

And for our Italian friends:

Il ruolo del training musicale nel promuovere la plasticità cerebrale e lo sviluppo di capacità cognitive linguistiche è di grande interesse sia dal punto di vista scientifico sia sociale. In questo studio, gli Autori riportano i risultati di uno studio longitudinale, durato oltre due anni, effettuato usando sia misure elettrofisiologiche sia comportamentali per verificare l’influenza del training musicale sulla segmentazione del linguaggio in bambini di 8 anni. I bambini sono stati assegnati con pseudo-randomizzazione a due gruppi di studio, uno sottoposto a training musicale, l’altro a lezioni di pittura, e testati periodicamente sulla capacità di estrarre parole senza significato da un flusso continuo di sillabe di un linguaggio artificiale. Le valutazioni dimostrano che solo i bambini esposti a training musicale aumentano la capacità di segmentazione del linguaggio, suggerendo l’importanza fondamentale del training musicale per lo sviluppo linguistico. Questi risultati hanno forti implicazioni nel promuovere l’elaborazione di strategie basate sul training musicale per aiutare i bambini con disturbi di apprendimento su base

Musical training proven again to enhance P3a and P3b plasticity

The following is an excerpt from a recent project done in Finland regarding plasticity of the P300 ERP for infrequent target sounds, and whether or not the short-term plasticity of the P3a and P3b responses are enhanced in musicians. What did they find? Musicians were better than nonmusicians at discriminating target deviants. Not only this, but regardless of musical training, a higher working memory function also produced better discrimination.

Why this is important: This means, in line with our current knowledge of musical training, short-term plasticity, and working memory, this is just one more study to concrete the fact that musical training enhances P3a and P3b plasticity.I find this interesting largely due to my current research at the university regarding ASD, working memory models and music.


Music training enhances the rapid plasticity of P3a/P3b event-related brain potentials for unattended and attended target sounds (Seppänen, Pesonen, and Tervaniemi, 2012) 

Institute of Behavioural Sciences/Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 9 (Siltavuorenpenger 1 B), FI-00014, Helsinki, Finland.

Neurocognitive studies have shown that extensive musical training enhances P3a and P3b event-related potentials for infrequent target sounds, which reflects stronger attention switching and stimulus evaluation in musicians than in nonmusicians. However, it is unknown whether the short-term plasticity of P3a and P3b responses is also enhanced in musicians. We compared the short-term plasticity of P3a and P3b responses to infrequent target sounds in musicians and nonmusicians during auditory perceptual learning tasks. Target sounds, deviating in location, pitch, and duration with three difficulty levels, were interspersed among frequently presented standard sounds in an oddball paradigm. We found that during passive exposure to sounds, musicians had habituation of the P3a, while nonmusicians showed enhancement of the P3a between blocks. Between active tasks, P3b amplitudes for duration deviants were reduced (habituated) in musicians only, and showed a more posterior scalp topography for habituation when compared to P3bs of nonmusicians. In both groups, the P3a and P3b latencies were shortened for deviating sounds. Also, musicians were better than nonmusicians at discriminating target deviants. Regardless of musical training, better discrimination was associated with higher working memory capacity. We concluded that music training enhances short-term P3a/P3b plasticity, indicating training-induced changes in attentional skills.


And for my Italian friends:

Gli studi neurocognitivi hanno mostrato che una estensiva istruzione musicale aumenta le risposte dei potenziali evocati evento-correlati P3a e P3b per suoni non frequenti, riflettendo una maggiore capacità di attenzione e di valutazione nei confronti dello stimolo musicale nei musicisti, piuttosto che nei non musicisti. Non si conosce ancora in ogni caso se anche le risposte a breve termine siano aumentate nei musicisti, per questo gli Autori hanno comparato le risposte P3a e P3b durante un test di apprendimento percettivo nei musicisti e non. I suoni target, differenti per localizzazione, toni e durata secondo tre differenti livelli di difficoltà, sono stati mischiati con suoni frequenti in un paradigma oddball (con uno stimolo deviante inserito in una serie di stimoli uguali). Gli Autori hanno rilevato che durante l’esposizione passiva ai suoni i musicisti presentavano un certo grado di adattamento (diminuzione) nel potenziale P3a, mentre i non musicisti mostravano un aumento della risposta tra i vari blocchi di suoni. Tra un test e l’altro, le ampiezze di P3b per le deviazioni di durata sono state ridotte in conseguenza dell’adattamento solo nei musicisti, e mostravano una topografia posteriore nello scalpo se comparate alle risposte dei non musicisti. In entrambi i gruppi, le latenze P3a e P3b erano ridotte nei confronti dei suoni devianti, ma i musicisti avevano una migliore capacità di discriminare i target devianti. Indipendentemente dal training musicale, una migliore discriminazione era associata a una più alta capacità di memoria di lavoro. Gli Autori hanno concluso che il training musicale aumenta la plasticità a breve termine P3a/P3b, indicando che esistono dei cambiamenti attentivi indotti dal training musicale.

Autism, Gabrielle Giffords and the Neuroscience Behind “The Singing Therapy”

As many of you know, whilst in Vienna a couple of weeks ago, I attended the Second World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology. Although there were many intriguing presentations, it was no contest to see which paper stood out. In 1996, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug (Boston, Harvard Medical School) performed an experiment to test the shared neural correlation of singing and speech. Here is a portion of the abstract:

Using a modified sparse temporal sampling fMRI technique, we examined both shared and distinct neural correlates of singing and speaking. In the experimental conditions, 10 right-handed subjects were asked to repeat intoned (“sung”) and non-intoned (“spoken”) bisyllabic words/phrases that were contrasted with conditions controlling for pitch (“humming”) and the basic motor processes associated with vocalization (“vowel production”) (Özdemir, Norton, and Schlaug, 2006).

The remainder of the paper may be found here, but I will try to summarize the result. Basically, by actually singing the words or phrase, and not simply speaking or humming (referred to as ‘intoned speaking’), there occurred additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. What this means for the rest of us? This activation is now more than ever believed to be reason that while patients suffering from aphasia due to stroke or other varying brain damage may be unable to speak, they are able to sing.

That was in 2006. In a few short years, music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have all but exploded-the question is, why? As many publications have noted, the idea that music can be used in rehabilitation has been around for a century or more. So what has caused such media coverage in the last few years? My simple theory is because through the popularization of these techniques’ success via persons in the public eye, everyone is beginning to understand that it just works.

Speaking of the public eye, a friend sent me this article from NPR this morning. Though I was vaguely familiar with this success story, it really surprised me to see it mentioned in national media. For those unaware, a current hot topic in science journalism is the method of therapy Gabrielle Giffords has chosen after she suffered massive brain trauma. I’ve run into cases similar to this one before, but it was what kind of music therapy that really caught my attention: Melodic Intonation Therapy. The reason this really caught my attention is because this is precisely the groundbreaking (and very successful) research Dr. Schlaug presented at the conference in Vienna, only his use was with nonverbal Autistic children. Though Schlaug’s research largely pertains to other faculties, he set out in this case to test AMMT (Auditory Motor Mapping Therapy, a kind of specifically targeted ASD therapy akin to Melodic Intonation Therapy used for stroke patients with aphasia) against normative Controlled Speech Therapy.

Without going too in-depth, what he and his team discovered was that patients who engaged in singing (as opposed to merely speaking or humming) showed additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. Due to this, a strong case can be made as to why aphasic patients with left-hemisphere brain lesions are able to sing the text of a song whilst being incapable of speaking the same words. What this means for the whole of this ‘Singing Therapy’ is that by being able to work with brain regions such as Broca’s area which may facilitate the mapping of sound to action, all kinds of different strides may be made linguistically in patients with left-hemisphere brain damage. People who suffer from neurological impairments or disorders that would otherwise be completely unable to communicate verbally may now have that chance. In the words of Dr. Schlaug, “When there is no left hemisphere, you need the right hemisphere to work.”

To get back to congresswoman Giffords, I’d like to take a moment to talk about what is so important and unique with her situation by looking at her case from point of impact to recovery. Nearly one year ago, Giffords sustained a massive head trauma via a bullet that went directly through her brain. Unfortunately, when the bullet entered in this way, it didn’t stop at destroying the tissue in its path (which was for her in the left hemisphere); it also damaged the surrounding neurons, causing the brain to quickly swell and put her in immediate fatal danger of hematomas and other complications. Because of this, surgery was necessary right away to remove a portion of her skull in order for the swelling to, as it were, breathe. The surgery Giffords took part in was the once risky decompressive hemicraniectomy. For more information on this procedure, there’s a fantastic post by Bradley Voytek over at Oscillatory Thoughts including some great data, analysis and images on the process. If the congresswoman’s circumstances are ringing any bells for anyone, it’s because it bears some resemblance to arguably one of the most famous head trauma cases in neuroscience and psychology as a whole-Phineas Gage. I shall soon share some thoughts on Gage, and why he remains so near and dear to my heart (and certainly to the heart of Antonio Damasio) in terms of emotional intelligence and neuroscience, but until then, some parting thoughts on Giffords.

In the beginning of this road to recovery, most were skeptical that Giffords would ever be able to speak again, in any vein. However, through the process of working in Melodic Intonation Therapy with her music therapist, she has gone from singing short words and phrases (in minor thirds, the prominently used interval in this therapy) to singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to more structurally complex and well-known jazz and rock standards such as I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and American Pie. She has made massive strides in her recovery process, and continues to make more every day. This is only one example of the effectiveness and hope this “Singing Therapy” is bringing to the medical field. Even after speaking to Dr. Schlaug inVienna and finding he has “absolutely no interest whatsoever” in psychological disorders, I continue to be enthusiastic in the strides he and his team are making in the applied neuroscience of music.

A note: I continue to be amused by what a small world the pragmatic combining of music and neuroscience remains. Upon reaching the end of the NPR article, I now know why it was already so familiar to me, and why I immediately thought of Schlaug’s work at Harvard and Beth Israel-it is because that’s precisely the team NPR is taking their data from! Brilliant.