Science Writing Competition: How does the brain process rhythm?

  1. Elizabeth Kirkham  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Abstract

A region of the brain called the putamen has a central role in our ability to keep a beat in our head.

Main text

This article by Elizabeth Kirkham (pictured) was the winning entry in the Access to Understanding science-writing competition for PhD students and early career post-doctoral researchers organized by Europe PubMed Central in partnership with The British Library. Entrants were asked to explain to a non-scientific audience, in less than 800 words, the research reported in a scientific article and why it mattered.

Most people have little trouble recognising and following the beat in a piece of music. We can even continue to play the beat in our minds once a song has finished. However, few of us are aware that our knack for holding a beat in our head actually makes life easier. The capacity to identify patterns in streams of sound supports many forms of human behaviour, including moving, speaking and listening.

If the ability to generate this internal rhythm is disrupted, such as in Parkinson’s disease, problems begin to arise. People with Parkinson’s disease have difficulty with psychological tasks, such as holding a beat in their head, as well as with practical tasks, such as walking. The more we know about the regions of the brain that are causing these difficulties, the more effective we will be in designing treatments to combat them. Previous research suggests that a set of brain structures known as the basal ganglia have a role in identifying and following a beat.

The more we know about the regions of the brain that are causing these difficulties, the more effective we will be in designing treatments to combat them.

The basal ganglia are a network of brain regions that are involved in movement and action. Many of the regions within the basal ganglia appear to play a role in the processing of rhythm. One such region is the putamen, a round structure near the centre of the brain. Studies measuring levels of brain activity have found that the putamen is active when a person is listening to a beat. However, it is not clear whether the putamen is merely identifying the presence of the beat, or whether it is actually helping us to recreate that beat in our minds.

Jessica Grahn of the University of Western Ontario and James Rowe of Cambridge University and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, also in Cambridge, designed a study that allowed them to distinguish between these two possibilities (Grahn and Rowe, 2013). They began by creating small snippets of sound. Some of these sound-bites contained a beat, while others did not. Then they combined pairs of sound-bites to produce four different types of sequences: in the first sequence a sound-bite without a beat was followed by a different sound-bite without a beat; in the second a sound-bite without a beat was followed by one with a beat; in the third a sound-bite with a beat was followed by a one with a version of the same beat; and in the fourth sequence a sound-bite with a beat was followed by a sound-bite with a faster or slower version of the same beat.

Grahn and Rowe asked the participants in their study to listen to the different sequences whilst a scanner measured how their brain responded. In order to measure this brain activity, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This is a form of brain imaging that allows us to see which regions of the brain are involved in a particular task: it does this by measuring the amount of oxygen that a specific region of the brain is using relative to other regions. If a brain region is using a lot of oxygen during a task, it is assumed that it is involved in carrying out the task.

Grahn and Rowe found that the putamen responded differently to different beat sequences. When there was no beat, the putamen was not active. Similarly, when participants heard a new beat, the putamen did not respond. By contrast, when participants heard the same beat twice, the putamen was highly active. It was also active, but to a lesser extent, when the sequence involved the same beat played at different speeds.

These results suggest that the putamen was not responding to the presence of a beat per se, but was processing the continuation of the beat across the sequence. This supports the theory that the putamen is involved in our ability to recreate a beat in our head. Prior to this study, researchers knew that the putamen was involved in beat processing, but they did not know what its specific role was. The work of Grahn and Rowe shows that the putamen is important for the mental generation of a beat.

In addition to advancing our knowledge of the putamen’s role in beat processing, these findings could have clinical implications. People with Parkinson’s disease are capable of identifying a beat in a piece of music, but have difficulty when it comes to reproducing the beat in their own minds. This study shows that this pattern of symptoms could be caused by damage to the putamen, thus highlighting the need to consider this part of the brain as a target for future treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

References

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Elizabeth Kirkham

    Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
    For correspondence
    ekirkham1@sheffield.ac.uk
    Competing interests
    The author declares that no competing interests exist.

Publication history

  1. Version of Record published: March 25, 2014 (version 1)

Copyright

© 2014, Kirkham

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.

Metrics

  • 2,393
    Page views
  • 92
    Downloads
  • 0
    Citations

Article citation count generated by polling the highest count across the following sources: Crossref, PubMed Central, Scopus.

Download links

A two-part list of links to download the article, or parts of the article, in various formats.

Downloads (link to download the article as PDF)

Open citations (links to open the citations from this article in various online reference manager services)

Cite this article (links to download the citations from this article in formats compatible with various reference manager tools)

  1. Elizabeth Kirkham
(2014)
Science Writing Competition: How does the brain process rhythm?
eLife 3:e02658.
https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.02658

Further reading

    1. Neuroscience
    Daichi Sasaki, Ken Imai ... Ko Matsui
    Research Article

    The presence of global synchronization of vasomotion induced by oscillating visual stimuli was identified in the mouse brain. Endogenous autofluorescence was used and the vessel ‘shadow’ was quantified to evaluate the magnitude of the frequency-locked vasomotion. This method allows vasomotion to be easily quantified in non-transgenic wild-type mice using either the wide-field macro-zoom microscopy or the deep-brain fiber photometry methods. Vertical stripes horizontally oscillating at a low temporal frequency (0.25 Hz) were presented to the awake mouse, and oscillatory vasomotion locked to the temporal frequency of the visual stimulation was induced not only in the primary visual cortex but across a wide surface area of the cortex and the cerebellum. The visually induced vasomotion adapted to a wide range of stimulation parameters. Repeated trials of the visual stimulus presentations resulted in the plastic entrainment of vasomotion. Horizontally oscillating visual stimulus is known to induce horizontal optokinetic response (HOKR). The amplitude of the eye movement is known to increase with repeated training sessions, and the flocculus region of the cerebellum is known to be essential for this learning to occur. Here, we show a strong correlation between the average HOKR performance gain and the vasomotion entrainment magnitude in the cerebellar flocculus. Therefore, the plasticity of vasomotion and neuronal circuits appeared to occur in parallel. Efficient energy delivery by the entrained vasomotion may contribute to meeting the energy demand for increased coordinated neuronal activity and the subsequent neuronal circuit reorganization.

    1. Medicine
    2. Neuroscience
    Flora Moujaes, Jie Lisa Ji ... Alan Anticevic
    Research Article

    Background:

    Ketamine has emerged as one of the most promising therapies for treatment-resistant depression. However, inter-individual variability in response to ketamine is still not well understood and it is unclear how ketamine’s molecular mechanisms connect to its neural and behavioral effects.

    Methods:

    We conducted a single-blind placebo-controlled study, with participants blinded to their treatment condition. 40 healthy participants received acute ketamine (initial bolus 0.23 mg/kg, continuous infusion 0.58 mg/kg/hr). We quantified resting-state functional connectivity via data-driven global brain connectivity and related it to individual ketamine-induced symptom variation and cortical gene expression targets.

    Results:

    We found that: (i) both the neural and behavioral effects of acute ketamine are multi-dimensional, reflecting robust inter-individual variability; (ii) ketamine’s data-driven principal neural gradient effect matched somatostatin (SST) and parvalbumin (PVALB) cortical gene expression patterns in humans, while the mean effect did not; and (iii) behavioral data-driven individual symptom variation mapped onto distinct neural gradients of ketamine, which were resolvable at the single-subject level.

    Conclusions:

    These results highlight the importance of considering individual behavioral and neural variation in response to ketamine. They also have implications for the development of individually precise pharmacological biomarkers for treatment selection in psychiatry.

    Funding:

    This study was supported by NIH grants DP5OD012109-01 (A.A.), 1U01MH121766 (A.A.), R01MH112746 (J.D.M.), 5R01MH112189 (A.A.), 5R01MH108590 (A.A.), NIAAA grant 2P50AA012870-11 (A.A.); NSF NeuroNex grant 2015276 (J.D.M.); Brain and Behavior Research Foundation Young Investigator Award (A.A.); SFARI Pilot Award (J.D.M., A.A.); Heffter Research Institute (Grant No. 1–190420) (FXV, KHP); Swiss Neuromatrix Foundation (Grant No. 2016–0111) (FXV, KHP); Swiss National Science Foundation under the framework of Neuron Cofund (Grant No. 01EW1908) (KHP); Usona Institute (2015 – 2056) (FXV).

    Clinical trial number:

    NCT03842800