Music Seen as Instrument for Stimulating Brain Areas

By JANE E. ALLEN  The Associated Press Fort Worth Star-Telegram               November 22, 1998

LOS ANGELES — Rhythm, melody and harmony stimulate several areas of the brain, suggesting that music could be used to help repair everything from damaged speech to damaged creations, researchers say. Classical music training may also enlarge parts of the brain, researchers said recently at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting.

Scientists have long wanted to know how the brain responds to sound and rhythm, how musical studies affect brain wiring and how the brains of the musically talented differ from those of the nonmusical. “Undeniably, there is a biology of music,” said Dr. Mark Jude Tramo, a neurobiologist at Harvard University Medical School. “Music is biologically part of human life, as music is artistically a part of human life.” Dr. Gotffried Schlaug of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston reported that the cerebellum is larger in classically trained male musicians than in men who don’t play a musical instrument.

Schlaug and fellow researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of 32 right-handed musicians with 24 right-handed men who did not play instruments. They found a 5 percent difference in the volume of the cerebellum. “Finding evidence like this is sort of remarkable. The structure seems to adapt” to early years of training and practice, Schlaug said. “Musicians are not just born with these differences.” There were no similar findings in women, though only a small number were studied.

Anne Blood, a researcher in neuropsychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University in Canada, examined emotional responses to music among those with untrained ears. Brain imaging scans showed that different regions of the brain respond to pleasant, harmonious musical sounds and to musical sounds that clash, she said. And brain regions that turned on during emotional responses to music were different from those previously observed. As the music increased in unpleasantness, an area on the right side of the brain important to emotion — the parahippocampal gyrus — became active. On the other hand, as the music increased in pleasantness, other areas on the left and right side that control emotions activated. “Some day this research will help us to understand how different types of music can help in different kinds of neurological disorders,” Blood said.

In another study, Lawrence Parsons and colleagues at the University of Texas in San Antonio found that an area on the right side of the brain interprets written musical notes and passages. This corresponds to an area in the left brain known to interpret written letters and words. Eight right-handed faculty conductors were scanned as they read and listened to the score of an unfamiliar Bach chorale. They were instructed to point out errors in rhythm, harmony or melody. “All three tasks activated both left and right brain areas,” Parsons said. All three elements also strongly activated the cerebellum — a small region of the brain responsible for posture, balance, coordination and fine motor movements.

Parsons said the understanding of links between musical language and spoken language could help in speech and language rehabilitation. Doctors already use a technique called melodic intonation therapy that teaches stroke patients to sing rather than speak what they want to convey. In some cases they can recover their speech.