Music Makes Its Case for Neurological Respect

City Winery in Manhattan was a most appropriate venue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. And while not very much music was heard at the IMNF-sponsored forum, music’s impact on the brain was certainly in the air as neuroscientists, music therapists, and one rock music luminary covered the many ways in which music may affect brain development, cognition, and healing.

After all was said and done, however, one point seemed to hover above all the rest: the inability on the part of researchers to produce replicated studies that link the benefits of music to cognitive function.

Hart (left) and Gazzaley (right). Photo credit: Edward Bilsky

Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart (left) and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley (right). Photo credit: Edward Bilsky

Several panelists pointed out that this problem has affected the ability of neuroscientists to receive research funding and gain the type of respect that music needs to make it more relevant as a major player in the brain-science world. Numerous examples and videos demonstrated the way music has been used to impact the lives of people suffering from any number of neurological disorders: Parkinson’s disease, dementia, autism, and traumatic brain injury, to name a few.

Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., known for his neuroimaging work at UCSF on a brain game aimed at improving cognitive function in older adults, “NeuroRacer” (featured on the cover of Nature and currently undergoing an FDA-sponsored clinical trial), compared music to meditation and even exercise in the sense that cognitive benefits are highly suspected, but difficult to document. (Last month, Gazzaley was awarded Science Educator of the Year at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting; the Dana Foundation sponsors this award.)

Edward Large, a panelist and professor at the University of Connecticut, called the study of music “a reductionist program, something that science wants to take apart to better understand it. But the structure of the way we study science does not fit the many components involved in music: auditory, tactile, and visual,” he added.

Mickey Hart

Mickey Hart. Photo credit: Edward Bilsky

Gazzaley believes that advances in imaging in his lab may help change that thinking next year. He and Mickey Hart, a longtime percussionist with the Grateful Dead, co-founded a project in 2012 to better understand the role of rhythm in brain function and investigate how neuromodulation, rhythm training, video game training, and neurofeedback may play a part in improving cognition and healing. Gazzaley detailed how “synchronization” between the various parts of the brain is essential.

Hart related how he was inspired by a grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and, after hearing him play rhythms, recognized him. “How the brain responds to certain rhythmic stimuli is what it’s all about,” said Hart. “Once we can prove it and share it, then maybe we can finally get some money out of Washington for research.”

Serving as master-of-ceremonies through the various panels was NPR’s John Schaefer, host of the Soundcheck program and regular World Science Festival contributor. Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at McGill University and the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, delivered the keynote address. He played special homage to the late Oliver Sacks, one of his mentors and someone who firmly believed that music is already a neurological game changer.

– Bill Glovin

One response

  1. Synchronization of the brain wave pattern is crucial to cognitive function. My disruption in channeling proper brain rhythm was cause by a head injury due to a fall. We need to find a way in supporting Dr. Gazzaley mission goals by providing him with the proper funding and resources so that he can continuing his quest in tapping into unknown mystery of the brain. Isaac Cortes Air Force disable wounded warrior.

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