Neuroscience and the Arts: A Narrative Told Through Tweets
Metheny received his PhD from Berklee School of Music and began instructing at the age of 18. Now he is a 20-time Grammy award winner who addressed an audience of thousands at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.
The Society for Neuroscience hosted 30,000 international researchers with interests ranging from the molecular mechanisms of neural phenomena to clinical trials of rehabilitation interventions. During the annual lecture “Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society”, guest speaker Metheny commented that he had never been in a room with so much combined skill and wisdom which he comically described as “units of human achievement, trademark”.
Metheny is particularly well-known for his proficiency at improvising, a practice characteristic to jazz music in which musicians create melodies in real-time. Metheny described the state of flow experienced by improvisers as a place—specifically: “the rare, exalted territory where we can be free”. Dr. Charles Limb, who was on-stage interviewing Metheny, has explored the “neural trace of freedom” using functional neuroimaging. Limb found deactivation in dorsolateral prefrontal and orbital regions which likely represents disengagement of self-monitoring, and increased activation in the frontal polar cortex, which likely represents increased autobiographical representation (Limb & Braun, 2008).
Metheny suggests that the process of improvising isn’t much different from other problem solvers. In science, conducting research requires risk-taking, lack of inhibition, and an increase in sense of self may drive creativity and passions.
During the poster sessions, several researchers discussed their research combining their passion for the arts with neuroscience.
Dr. Joe DeSouza presented work conducted by his PhD student, Karolina Bearss, that demonstrated weekly dance classes protected against disease progression in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Neuroimaging data suggested that this protection may be afforded by increased activation in the supplementary motor area.
The supplementary motor area is one of the neural regions associated with the human mirror neuron system. In animals, mirror neurons are activated both when an animal executes an action and observes the same action (Gallese et al., 1996), and are therefore believed to be responsible for understanding others’ behaviours. While much controversy exists in discussions of whether these specific neurons exist in humans, when humans observe an action, a network including the premotor area, supplementary motor area, sensorimotor cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex becomes engaged (Cattaneo and Rizzolatti, 2009). DeSouza expressed skepticism of human mirror neurons, but the network was the inspiration for research conducted by Arturo Nuara, MD.
Dr. Nuara developed an action-observation treatment for children with cerebral palsy to improve their hand functioning. In collaboration with a professional magician, videos were developed to teach children magic tricks that required usage of their paretic hand. Subsequently, children practiced the tricks with other children with cerebral palsy through peer-to-peer video conferencing. Children demonstrated improved hand functioning, however the children who improved the most were those who had peers that were better than them.
Motor learning, or acquiring a skill, can be modulated by genetics. Specifically, certain brain-derived neurotrophic factor polymorphisms are associated with better motor learning abilities. Therefore, Tara Henechowicz hypothesized that there would be a higher prevalence of polymorphisms providing advantaged motor learning in a sample of expert musicians. However, contrary to her hypothesis, the prevalence of her sample was not different than the average population. More research should explore whether those genetically disadvantaged musicians develop compensatory motor learning strategies. If these strategies exist, Henechowicz suggests they may be able to be applied to improve motor learning in rehabilitation contexts.
Henechowicz’ colleague, Yuko Koshimori, was examining the neural mechanisms of rhythmic auditory stimulation, an intervention frequently used to assist ambulatory behaviour in patients with Parkinson’s Disease.
#SfN18 @UofT student @YKoshimori Moving in time to metronome and music caused less dopamine release in ventral striatum of healthy young adults compared to no auditory stimulation which suggests that #RAS might improve efficiency of the #motor system pic.twitter.com/i02VNAV1Gl— Dana&TheMonsters (@DanaSwarbrick) November 7, 2018
Dr. Michael Thaut, director of the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Research Collaboratory, was also presenting a poster.
#SfN18 Dr. Michael Thaut at #MaHRC @UofTMusic @StMikesHospital presents research showing neural underpinnings of why musical memories are preserved longer and how active music listening improves memory of patients with #Alzheimer's disease through increased #neuroplasticity pic.twitter.com/JWRGW9ARCK— Dana&TheMonsters (@DanaSwarbrick) November 7, 2018
Specifically, Dr. Thaut displayed neuroimaging data that suggested that after three weeks of daily exposure to long-term familiar music, patients with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated increased efficiency and connectivity in neural regions associated with memory and cognition during familiar music listening, and corresponding improvements in a standardized memory test.
Other research conducted by Dr. Amy Belfi examined the usage of music for modulating emotional responses in Alzheimer’s disease.
#SfN18 @amy_belfi presents her work showing there is a prolonged response to emotional (happy and sad) music in patients with Alzheimer's even though they have no improved recall or recognition of those songs #neuromusic #neurodegen #Alzheimers pic.twitter.com/12fEoDHYio— Dana&TheMonsters (@DanaSwarbrick) November 4, 2018
Trevor McPherson examined physiological differences between active and passive music therapy interventions.
@TrevorMcPhers11 @FrohlichLab Active music therapy caused reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity whereas passive music listening made no change. #musicscience #musictherapy #SfN18 #neuromusic pic.twitter.com/rp9Vwjc6CB— Dana&TheMonsters (@DanaSwarbrick) November 7, 2018
While physiology and neuroimaging are imperative to a greater understanding of how the arts can be used in rehabilitation, perhaps the most impactful statement came from outsider Pat Metheny. When questioned with what a satisfying understanding of the neuroscience of music would look like, the neuroscientists Dr. Charles Limb and SfN President-Elect Dr. Richard Huganir responded they are looking forward to improved scientific methodologies that offer greater resolution. But, when Metheny responded, he received an outburst of applause: “I still think there is going to be a point where you will bump into the soul factor and [it] […] is hard to know how that will ever be quantified.”