Musician Brains

ImageAn article on Psychology Today entitled, “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” (Link: http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201106/music-and-the-mind/do-musicians-have-different-brains) interested me because I have felt that the years of musical training I had in my youth shaped a huge part of how I learn. Never knowing if there was any scientific truth to my opinion, this article and subsequent studies I searched give me some insight. 

In the article by Susan R. Barry, Ph. D, the difference of how the auditory and visual cortexes of musician’s brains function are explored. The quote, “Anatomists would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artists, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a musician without a moment’s hesitation” (Barry 2010), is what first hooked me about this article. Having played the piano and violin for almost a decade in my youth, I wondered what could be different about my brain? The article continues to say that developing a better musical memory through training may also enhance verbal memory, but how is this possible? Scientists found that through studies that the visual cortex was activated in verbal memory retrieval, “It is suggested that the visual cortex can be recruited to serve as extra memory resources and contributes to the superior verbal memory in special situations” (Huang 2010). The researchers chop this up to be a re-organization of the brain to recruit other areas of the brain to preform different tasks. 

Throughout my life I have noticed I have a particular knack for picking up other languages relatively easily. Through learning Spanish, French, and Chinese I noticed I learned basic vocabulary in a different way than my classmates – I visualized words and phrases during recall. After reading this article it made me wonder if perhaps my musical training had a hand in this. Through further research I discovered a few more articles about memory and musical training. One study looking at perceptions and cognition abilities of the brain through musical training found that, “Musicians showed superior immediate and delayed recall of word lists and greater use of a semantic clustering strategy during initial list-learning than non-musicians… These results suggest that extensive music training is associated with a generalized enhancement of auditory and visual memory functions,” (Jakobson 2008). Perhaps musical training could be used in young children diagnosed with ADHD or other memory issues to help with the resulting issues. 

Scientists are also wondering if these findings can aid in helping therapy of stroke victims or other patients with damaged portions of their brains. The thinking is that these patients can also learn to rewire their brain to perform tasks of damaged areas in undamaged areas. Music therapy has already been in use for decades for Schizophrenia and other neurological disease. Melodic Intonation Therapy, a form of musical therapy, is starting to be used in stroke victims, however. In a TedTalk by Robert Gupta, he describes the work of Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a neuroscientist at Harvard. He says, “Schlaug found that his stroke victims who were aphasic, could not form sentences of three- or four- words, but they could sing the lyrics to a song…after 70 hours of intensive singing lessons, he found that the music was able to literally rewire the brains of his patients and create a homologous speech center in their right hemisphere to compensate for the left hemisphere’s damage” (Gupta 2012). These results are an exciting find for the future treatment and recovery of stroke victims whom have lost the abilities of speech cognition. The video of this TedTalk can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_gupta_between_music_and_medicine.html

Another issue that is thought to have a possible treatment by musical training I came across is age-related decline in auditory skills. One study knew that young musicians had greater auditory capacity, having greater perception of speech in background noise. The scientists wondered, however, if musical training could help the aging with decline in hearing. Results found that, “Consistent with performance in young adults, older musicians demonstrated enhanced speech-in-noise perception relative to non-musicians along with greater auditory, but not visual, working memory capacity. By demonstrating that speech-in-noise perception and related cognitive function are enhanced in older musicians, our results imply that musical training may reduce the impact of age-related auditory decline” (Parbery-Clark 2001). Although not as severe as other health declinations due to aging, this will be an issue I believe to be more prevalent as current generations age with the dawn of earbuds and digital music.

 

Presented here are just three incidences of musical training and differences in brain function. Music, an unlikely medicine, may in the future be more widely utilized with these findings and more discoveries I am sure are to come in the future. It is important to look at other means of medicating other than a pill as to not become too dependent on synthetic therapies. This may open a window to harnessing the body’s own healing powers, as well as, giving scientists a view into how the brain functions. This could lead to a better understanding to develop more therapies and methods for dealing with neurological diseases. 

Sources: 

Barry, S. R. (2010). Do Musicians Have Different Brains? Eyes on the Brain. Retrieved

            from http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201106/music-and-the-mind/do-musicians-have-different-brains

 Lorna S. Jakobson, Samantha T. Lewycky, Andrea R. Kilgour, Brenda M. Stoesz (2008).

            Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal.University of California Press

            Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 41-55.

Parbery-Clark A, Strait DL, Anderson S, Hittner E, Kraus N (2011) Musical Experience

            and the Aging Auditory System: Implications for Cognitive Abilities and Hearing

            Speech in Noise. PLoS ONE 6(5): e18082.

 Z. Huang, J.X. Zhang, Z. Yang, G. Dong, J. Wu, A.S. Chan, X. Weng, Verbal memory

            retrieval engages visual cortex in musicians, Neuroscience, Volume 168, Issue 1,

            16 June 2010, Pages 179-189.

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New Hope for Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

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Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia that affects memory, cognition, and behavior. It is a progressive disease that worsens over time and contributes to about 80% of dementia cases. For Alzheimer’s scientists know that the brain stops utilizing glucose, which is extremely important for brain functioning – the brain uses about 20% of total glucose in the body. Currently, no medication for reversing the damage of Alzheimer’s disease is available. Deep brain stimulation is going under clinical trial this year to see if it is an effective and safe form of treatment. Deep brain stimulation places electrodes in the brain to expel electricity and excite neurons in certain circuits of the brain. Since, the brain stops effectively utilizing glucose in certain areas electrodes are placed at the fornix, which is the highway to the memory circuit of the brain, to try to regenerate the area to use glucose again. Researchers and surgeons are hoping this treatment will help the disease and its progression. Recently, scientists have found a molecular catalytic trigger for the disease, which can help explain what causes the chain reaction of neuron death in the brain. This is hopeful for diagnosis and also drug development for the future of dementia diseases. They have found the pathway that causes cell death, which will allow scientists to target and understand the disease better. The full article about the publishing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences can be found here on ScienceDaily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130520154217.htm

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Deep Brain Stimulation

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Although deep brain stimulation sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, it is a treatment for several neurological diseases that is becoming more and more utilized everyday. Deep brain stimulation is a treatment that implants a pacemaker and electrodes into areas of the brain to deliver electricity to different circuits, exciting the neurons. Researchers have found that with different neurological diseases, different malfunctioning circuits are responsible. Electrodes are placed along these circuits to fill the gap to renew the circuit. Scientists have found that this treatment can affect diseases dealing with mood, cognition, and movement. Currently the FDA has approved this treatment for Parkinson’s and Dystonia. Clinical trials are currently being done for Alzheimer’s Disease and Severe Depression for patients who are non-responsive to traditional medications. In the past the only treatment for Parkinson’s, for example, was a lobotomy treatment which removed part of the brain. Deep brain stimulation is desirable however because the treatment is reversible. In this TedTalk with Andres Lozano, he shows a remarkable video and demonstration of how deep brain stimulation is already being utilized. 

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Heavy Drinking and Chronic Smoking: More Health Warnings

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New studies are showing that alcohol use and chronic cigarette smoking can cause ‘early aging’ of the brain in individuals. As college students I’m sure we all at least know a few students in the category of a ‘smoker’, or even some that call themselves ‘social smokers’. Research is beginning to show that these bad habits could result in affects on cognition and memory. Showing that with increasing age, a decline in cognition is more rapid than in non-smokers. Although smoking and heavy drinking have resulted in a number of other diseases and deaths, this is something more to think about for future health complications. The full article can be found here on Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130518153444.htm. 

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New Innovations for Detecting Tuberculosis

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Tuberculosis, a disease that many Americans do not worry about in everyday life, is still a major disease in underdeveloped parts of the world. TB caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis is primarily an infection in the lungs. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, coughing, night sweats, and weight loss. TB an effectively weaken the body’s immune system, which causes more problems than just a lung infection for the person suffering the disease. I’m sure everyone is familiar with a TB skin test and the ease at which they are administered, but this is not the case worldwide. Tuberculosis affected 8.7 million people worldwide and killed 1.4 million people in 2011. Much of this was due to poor research in the poorer areas of the world. The delay of diagnosis and treatment allows more time for the spread of infection, which can spiral out of control considering it can take multiple weeks to attain treatment. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology however have developed a technology that allows TB diagnosis in just a few hours. Part of the reason why this is important is the delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to drug-resistant TB as it becomes to strong to be treated with the standard antibiotics. This has been a problem in Southeast Asia and also in prisons. The technology is convenient, but still a few years away from being utilized globally. However, this is just one example of how scientists are still trying to improve health conditions worldwide with new biotechnology innovations. The entire news article can be found here on Discovery News: http://news.discovery.com/tech/biotechnology/disease-detection-goes-mobile-130507.htm. 

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Sugary Soft Drinks May Cause More than Weight Gain

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New research has indicated that sugary soft drinks can increase the occurrence of kidney stones. One of my good friends suffers from a kidney condition, so when she was first diagnosed they told her to cut out all soda. Knowing this, the research that has recently come out is not surprising. It states that 10-20% of Americans will suffer from a kidney stone during their lifetime. It will be interesting to see how these new findings will affect school regulations, considering how many children drink pop everyday. Maybe next time you reach for that coke, you’ll think twice. 

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130515174407.htm

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Jill Bolte Taylor’s Unique Experience with a Stroke

Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist that had a unique experience. She was studying patients with neurological disorders questioning what are the biological differences between the brains of schizophrenia and normal patients? One morning before going into work she unknowingly suffered from a severe hemorrhage in the left side of the brain. She could not walk, talk, or remember anything about her life. She recalls going in and out of present consciousness, at moments being aware she was suffering from a stroke, but then fading back into what she described as “la la land.” Dr. Taylor explained that the right human hemisphere of the brain is about the present moment, learns kinesthetically, thinks in pictures, information is in the form of energy streams coming in through the sensory systems. While the left hemisphere of the brain thinks methodically and linearly, all about the past and future, designed to take present moment and pick out details, categorizes, organizes, associates it with learned stuff in past, thinks in language, connects the internal world to external world, that little voice that says “I am”. As the hemorrhage caused more damage to her brain she found herself in a silent mind. Her awareness switch off and she could no longer identify the boundaries of her body. She says semi-jokingly, “Imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage…euphoria.” This is the point where she recognizes she has had a stroke. Throughout the course of attempting to get help she has waves of clarity when her left hemisphere switches back on and she reattaches to normal reality. She describes the struggle of going through these waves as she tries to call for help not knowing how to use phone. She loses the concept of numbers so she matches squiggles on business cards to squiggles on phone. It is not until she is met with someone on the other line that she cannot understand language and that she cannot speak. As she describes language and speech, I am reminded of the adults in Charlie Brown. Finally, she receives help and is taken to the hospital. The surgeons removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball, which took her 8 years to recover from.  As Jill Bolte Taylor went through this situation she had known from a scientist’s perspective she gained other, new insight into how the incident could be applied throughout life. She explains we have two cognitive minds between the left and right hemisphere and that as humans, we have the power to choose where we are conscious. She remembers the peace and clarity she had in the wave of the right hemisphere consciousness and urges us to seek this peace by choice to project into the world. An inspirational talk that makes you think differently about ways you can use your brain’s cognition.

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