Sound Health: Music and the Mind

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language–we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

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Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research


President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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Joshua Gordon Named New Head of NIMH

Guest Post by Kayt Sukel

joshua gordonIn late July, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it had finally completed its nearly year-long search for a new director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said that the agency had selected Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., currently an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, to take the helm of the $1.5 billion federal agency governing mental health research, replacing former director Thomas Insel. He is expected to start in September.


In the press release announcing the selection, Collins said, “Josh is a visionary psychiatrist and neuroscientist with deep experience in mental health research and practice. He is exceptionally well qualified to lead the NIMH research agenda to improve mental health and treatments for mental illnesses. We’re thrilled to have him join the NIH leadership team.

Gordon, whose research program focused on integrative genetic models of psychiatric disease, spoke with the Dana Foundation about why he wanted to take on this new role in his career, the importance of collaboration and communication, and where he hopes to see the agency go under his leadership.

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Medical Innovation: On the Edge of Change

Of the 10 most-common deadly diseases,
dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) is the only one that has no
treatment. But—finally—we are on the cusp of potential diagnoses and therapies,
said panelists at an “Advancing Medical Innovation” conference yesterday in Washington, DC.

“The great news is if we develop therapies
for Alzheimer’s disease, which is very common, we’ll be developing therapies
for fronto-temporal dementia (which is less common) and Lewy body disease,”
said Dennis Selkoe of Harvard Institute of Medicine. “Rare diseases can
piggyback on common diseases, and all of them can move forward,” said Selkoe,
also a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

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Feast, but visions of famine, at NIH

While the recent deluge of stimulus money to fund science research is
very welcome, the chief of the National Institutes of Health said on Monday,
the devil is in the details—will the support continue?

“Science is not a 100-yard dash—it’s a marathon,” said Francis Collins
during an address at Neuroscience
, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Chicago. Collins is the first sitting NIH
chief director to speak at the annual meeting; his talk attracted several
thousand of the more than 30,000 neuroscientists and others who have converged on McCormick Place this week.

There could not be a more important time to reinforce the importance of
science than now, as the president and Congress begin the difficult debate over
the next fiscal budget, Collins argued. Most experiments started now won’t be
completed in the two years covered by the stimulus grants, he pointed out. They
“are down payments on results in the future,” and “to take away the fuel
midstream would not lead to good outcomes” for the research or the researchers,
he said. “Science doesn’t resonate very well with feast-or-famine circumstances.”

In the past year, the agency received around 20,000 applications for
stimulus challenge grant funding; it had expected several thousand. “We weren’t
able to fund but a percentage,” Collins said, “but were inspired by the
outpouring of creativity.”

Continued funding in 2011 and after will be its own challenge given the
economic downturn, however, and the agency could again find itself in the all-then-nothing
cycle it suffered this past decade. Funding doubled between 1998 and 2003 and then
was flat for the next five years, letting inflation carve “a deep loss” in
money available for grants, he said.

After just receiving $10 billion in stimulus funding for the 2008-2009
budget, funding more 12,000 research projects, “I do think there’s some risk”
that the cycle will repeat, Collins said. He urged scientists and science
advocates to “make the case that science research really is important to the
nation’s health, its economy and to the rest of the world’s health.”

With its current funding, Collins said, NIH is supporting its bedrock,
basic science research, but he also is looking to take advantage of five “areas
of opportunity”:

  • Applying “high-throughput technology,” such as imaging, genomics,
    computational methods and nanotechnology, to answer basic questions.
    Instead of small projects teasing out one or
    another component of a biological system, “we want investigators to be able to
    ask questions with ‘all’ in them,” Collins said, for instance, “what are all
    the variations in the genome linked to a certain disease?” Researchers
    didn’t have the tools earlier to ask these wide-ranging questions; now that
    they do, he said, NIH should encourage them to take advantage.

  • Encouraging research translating bench research to potential
    therapies for people
    . Translating
    a basic-research discovery into a clinical application is a long and complicated process
    that used to be mainly funded by private pharmaceutical firms. Collins said NIH will
    target money for more investigators to tackle the climb toward clinical
    applications, including the “so-called valley of death,” or first-stage
    trials in humans, a traditionally difficult stage to get funded.

  • Contributing to the science of health care reform. The institute will continue to offer
    policymakers and the public health information that is based on evidence,
    including research that compares the effectiveness of current therapies. “NIH
    has been doing these studies for a long time,” Collins said, including reports
    on treatments for diabetes and schizophrenia.

  • Encouraging a greater focus on global health. “We’re taking the mandate to use soft power
    instead of hard power and applying it to scientific research,” he said. For
    example, he cited a cooperative project by the University of Virginia and
    Brazil researching the effects of childhood nutrition and cognitive

  • Reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community. By stimulating innovation and supporting young
    investigators, Collins said, the U.S. can retain the bright young and
    mid-career scientists who might not otherwise stay in the field. “We know there
    is great interest and pent-up capability,” he said. Yet with funds threatening
    to dry up in two years, those people may start wondering if they made the right
    career choice and be tempted to abandon research.

Collins also separately met with groups of postdoctoral students, with
reporters and with the board of the neuroscience society. “We are listening,”
he said, urging people to e-mail
with questions, critiques and suggestions. “We are at a very exciting time
scientifically,” he said, and “neuroscience is one of the areas of greatest
excitement in science.

“Clearly, our community, after five years of flat budgets, came back to
life with this opportunity provided by the recovery act, and put forth some bold
and brilliant new ideas.”

-Nicky Penttila

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