Monday, November 22, 2010

Source: Inside NOVA. “Brain Music” by Ashleigh Constanza.

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Summary: Vince Calhoun (University of New Mexico) and Dan Lloyd (Trinity College, Connecticut) have created new software through which they convert brain data obtained from fMRI scans into musical tones. They liken this method of examining neurological test results to a form of a “neural stethoscope”. The purpose of this new software is to hone in on data that can be found through neurological testing methods, such as an fMRI, but which may not be readily seen by the eye. They claim this methodology is important because the ear can hear a greater range of complexity than the eye can see. Lloyd explains that, “The eye can’t discriminate different frequencies of light that are coming from a single point. It blends them together. The ear is sensitive to thousands of different frequencies. When three different frequencies of energy combine in sound, we hear them separately. We hear them as a chord.” This software works by assigning a unique tone to each area of the brain. When, during neurological scans, a specific area of the brain is activated, its specific tone is sounded.

The example of musical tones provided contrasts the musical tones of a normal brain with that of a schizophrenic brain. The difference is striking. While the normal brain’s tones are sounded at a fairly moderate and even tempo, the schizophrenic brain’s tones are more chaotic and frenetic, oscillating with much greater rapidity. This difference can be likened to two people having a conversation. In a normal conversation, the dialogue tends to be more rational with responses given in turn and being relatively moderate and evenly-spaced. In a less rational conversation, the participants might constantly interrupt each other and questions and answers overlap with each other. In such an instance, the efficiency, health, and quality of communication is heavily impacted.

Lloyd and Calhoun hope that, in the future, this software will be used as a diagnostic tool, particularly for mental illness, such as schizophrenia – a neurological disease that is particularly difficult to diagnose, as it has no biological markers.

As opposed to my last post on brain music, which was purely for entertainment, we see here that a similar strategy could be used to diagnose mental illness. Being able to use the ears in addition to the eyes to examine neurological scan data is an excellent tool for diagnosticians to have. Of course, one could question if we can even call this music – it is organized sound, but its creation and function are far different from what we generally think of as music. I wonder if this software could be applied to other bodily systems which scientists have trouble seeing with detail, or even geological systems.

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