Friday, December 7, 2012

Music Changes Brains

Dr. Gottfried Schlaug Director of the Music, Neuroimaging and Stroke Recovery Laboratories at the Beth Deaconess Israel Medical Centre and Harvard School


In this ITunes podcast Steve Menscher interviews Dr. Schlaug to explain the differences between musician and non-musician brains.

          Dr.Schlaug begins on a personal note telling his training on the organ, beginning of course, with JS Bach and later French-romantic Cesar Frank, Marcel Dupre. Obviously with all of the research he’s involved with, he doesn’t have enough time to practice as much anymore. He actually began with the recorder, then harmonium and finally his father built an organ and then he played organ for the church.
He says he wanted to be a musician when he grew up and during university he had more joy from helping people and he decided that medical school was more appropriate. It occurred afterwards when imaging for brains, magnetic resonance imaging was invented, and he realized the new exposure to these great tools and combined his love of music and these new imaging tools.

Beginning with the hypothesis at Beth Israel in the 1980’s that music might be in the right side of the brain: both sides of the brain are not equal.  In the temporal lobe on the right side of the brain there is more dominance in language processing. If people deviate from brain laterality then they may be talented in music. Individuals that have symmetrical brains or have dominant right side of the brain may be talented in music.

This hypothesis was wrong. They found a sub group with symmetry towards the left side of the brain. These people had absolute pitch (they can name the note without any tool or perceive tones as belonging to certain pitch classes.) This subgroup of musicians was extremely lateralized towards the left side of the brain. This was the first study and research found a brain correlate of absolute pitch.
Doctors began to see musicians as if they were auditory motor athletes. Musicians train their systems by discriminating sounds, making skills with both hands. Doctors began to hypothesize: the motor and auditory system develops more and the lateralization develops more in musicians.

Does music help with their skills such as language math etc.? Yes, musicians show differences with higher order functions integrating in auditory motor visual region with more complicated tasks. One region particularly shows precedence in musicians called the inferior frontal gyrus. Musicians develop rich connections with auditory and motor regains and changes occur in multi modal integrations in brain. If you take a task that is not musical in nature and if that test relies on these regions then music positively affects the task.

Is there an importance of art education for young people? Yes, music lessons are important. Funding is a problem.  Arts education benefits intrinsic value and may have extra musical or arts effects. Dr. Schlaug is a strong advocate of arts funding in education programs. Arts show a general increase of cognition and there is evidence that music leads to specific enhancements in specific domains. There is enough data that arts need a strong role in education!

Can music help people who have damaged brains? Yes, Dr. Schlaug is doing a study on music making and singing with rehabilitating stroke patients and it helps them regain language functions. A second study uses forms of music making and singing to develop language and communication skills in nonverbal children to become more active in their environment with their surrounding friends, therapists and families.

           The research that Dr. Schlaug is currently doing is revealing of the brain regions affected with musicians and music making. The fact that stroke victims can rehabilitate their language functions after a stroke using music or singing is stunning evidence. This may also lead to research showing that musicians may have less likelihood of suffering stroke. I feel Dr. Schlaug is on the verge of incredible research! Furthermore, the dopamine and serotonin release after music making enhances brain function and now research is informing something occurs to defend the brain from degeneration with musicians.

Also, the benefits he states of arts education is a point that educators alike need to hear. Music helps with higher motor functioning and auditory functions when people practice music making on a regular basis. For students when they have opportunities to sing, play and instruments in arts education it not only provides for creative outlet but as research shows it improves other higher motor, visual and auditory skills. This is great advocacy to not cut funding in the arts, which is done especially during fiscally trying times like today. As a music teacher, I know the benefits are great for my students, as they seem happier when they leave my classroom. But the question for me still remains: why isn’t music education and other art educations included in core curriculum planning? I still see numeracy and literacy having more importance but what about music and arts literacy?

As a musician I wonder what specifically are these higher motor functions just better spatial and visual reasoning or is there more to it?  I definitely have a keen ear but I wonder if there is a strengthening or defense mechanism in place throughout the brain in musicians?

1 comment:

Vivek Sharma said...

The dominant lateralization of the left-hemisphere in absolute pitch possessors is interesting. The processing of language occurs primarily on the left side, so if this language network cross-wires to the auditory cortex, it might explain why specific pitch-classes allow absolute pitch possessors to associate letter names and labels to pitches.

It is known that a sensory-motor network automatically fires when a person views an alphabet letter. This network could relate to the writing hand. One question I've posed is what if a child learned the alphabet letters through the piano as opposed to writing? Would this change the motor network that obligatorily fires?

In any case, the lateralization of brain functions is something that humans do more than other primates. The reason is because the part of the brain that interfaces both hemispheres, called the corpus callosum, gets smaller and smaller the higher up the evolutionary ladder a primate brain seems to be. Thus, human evolution seemed to prefer and sexually select for the extreme localization of brain functions.