1. Study suggests similar neural responses predict friendships

    February 18, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Dartmouth College press release:

    You may perceive the world the way your friends do, according to a Dartmouth study finding that friends have similar neural responses to real-world stimuli and these similarities can be used to predict who your friends are.

    The researchers found that you can predict who people are friends with just by looking at how their brains respond to video clips. Friends had the most similar neural activity patterns, followed by friends-of-friends who, in turn, had more similar neural activity than people three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends).

    Published in Nature Communications, the study is the first of its kind to examine the connections between the neural activity of people within a real-world social network, as they responded to real-world stimuli, which in this case was watching the same set of videos.

    Neural responses to dynamic, naturalistic stimuli, like videos, can give us a window into people’s unconstrained, spontaneous thought processes as they unfold. Our results suggest that friends process the world around them in exceptionally similar ways,” says lead author Carolyn Parkinson, who was a postdoctoral fellow in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth at the time of the study and is currently an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Computational Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    The study analyzed the friendships or social ties within a cohort of nearly 280 graduate students. The researchers estimated the social distance between pairs of individuals based on mutually reported social ties. Forty-two of the students were asked to watch a range of videos while their neural activity was recorded in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The videos spanned a range of topics and genres, including politics, science, comedy and music videos, for which a range of responses was expected. Each participant watched the same videos in the same order, with the same instructions. The researchers then compared the neural responses pairwise across the set of students to determine if pairs of students who were friends had more similar brain activity than pairs further removed from each other in their social network.

    The findings revealed that neural response similarity was strongest among friends, and this pattern appeared to manifest across brain regions involved in emotional responding, directing one’s attention and high-level reasoning. Even when the researchers controlled for variables, including left-handed- or right-handedness, age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality, the similarity in neural activity among friends was still evident. The team also found that fMRI response similarities could be used to predict not only if a pair were friends but also the social distance between the two.

    “We are a social species and live our lives connected to everybody else. If we want to understand how the human brain works, then we need to understand how brains work in combination — how minds shape each other,” explains senior author Thalia Wheatley, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and principal investigator of the Dartmouth Social Systems Laboratory.

    For the study, the researchers were building on their earlier work, which found that as soon as you see someone you know, your brain immediately tells you how important or influential they are and the position they hold in your social network.

    The research team plans to explore if we naturally gravitate toward people who see the world the same way we do, if we become more similar once we share experiences or if both dynamics reinforce each other.


  2. Study suggests arts and humanities in medical school promote empathy and inoculate against burnout

    by Ashley

    From the Tulane University press release:

    Medical students who spend more time engaging in the arts may also be bolstering the qualities that improve their bedside manner with patients, according to new research from Tulane and Thomas Jefferson universities.

    The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, finds that students who devoted more time to the humanities during medical school had significantly higher levels of positive physician attributes like empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, wisdom and emotional intelligence while at the same time reporting lower levels of adverse traits like burnout.

    “The humanities have often been pushed to the side in medical school curricula, but our data suggests that exposure to the arts are linked to important personal qualities for future physicians,” said senior author Marc Kahn, MD, MBA, MACP, the Peterman-Prosser Professor and Senior Associate Dean in the Tulane University School of Medicine. “This is the first study to show this type of correlation.”

    Through an online survey, the team measured exposure to the humanities (music, literature, theater and visual arts), positive personal qualities (wisdom, empathy, self-efficacy, tolerance for ambiguity and emotional appraisal) and negative qualities associated with well-being (physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness) in 739 medical students at five medical schools across the country.

    Those who reported more interactions with the humanities also scored higher in openness, visual-spatial skills and the ability to read their own and others’ emotions. Those with fewer interactions scored higher for qualities associated with physician burnout such as physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion.

    “The fields of art and medicine have been diverging for the last 100 years,” said Salvatore Mangione, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and first author. “Our findings present a strong case for bringing the left and the right brains back together — for the health of the patient and the physician.”

    Jefferson encourages student engagement in the arts and humanities to foster the essential skills related to healthcare including observation, critical thinking, self-reflection and empathy. The JeffMD curriculum, through the Medicine + Humanities Scholarly Inquiry track, is a formalized approach to embedding humanities into medical school.

    Similarly Tulane offers an elective course in medical humanities as well as student programming and community service opportunities that engage the arts. Tulane’s Creative Premedical Scholars Program offers early acceptance to undergraduate honor students in arts and humanities majors. Slightly less than half of the school’s first-year class of students earned undergraduate degrees in liberal arts.


  3. Study suggests music is an universal language

    February 17, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    Every culture enjoys music and song, and those songs serve many different purposes: accompanying a dance, soothing an infant, or expressing love. Now, after analyzing recordings from all around the world, researchers reporting in Current Biology on January 25 show that vocal songs sharing one of those many functions tend to sound similar to one another, no matter which culture they come from. As a result, people listening to those songs in any one of 60 countries could make accurate inferences about them, even after hearing only a quick 14-second sampling.

    The findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music, the researchers say.

    “Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences,” says Samuel Mehr (@samuelmehr) at Harvard University.

    “We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences,” adds co-first author of the study Manvir Singh, also at Harvard. “This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations.”

    Across the animal kingdom, there are links between form and function in vocalization. For instance, when a lion roars or an eagle screeches, it sounds hostile to naive human listeners. But it wasn’t clear whether the same concept held in human song.

    Many people believe that music is mostly shaped by culture, leading them to question the relation between form and function in music, Singh says. “We wanted to find out if that was the case or not.”

    In their first experiment, Mehr and Singh’s team asked 750 internet users in 60 countries to listen to brief, 14-second excerpts of songs. The songs were selected pseudo-randomly from 86 predominantly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Those songs also spanned a wide array of geographic areas designed to reflect a broad sampling of human cultures.

    After listening to each excerpt, participants answered six questions indicating their perceptions of the function of each song on a six-point scale. Those questions evaluated the degree to which listeners believed that each song was used (1) for dancing, (2) to soothe a baby, (3) to heal illness, (4) to express love for another person, (5) to mourn the dead, and (6) to tell a story. (In fact, none of the songs were used in mourning or to tell a story. Those answers were included to discourage listeners from an assumption that only four song types were actually present.)

    In total, participants listened to more than 26,000 excerpts and provided more than 150,000 ratings (six per song). The data show that, despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration, and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone.

    In a second, follow-up experiment designed to explore possible ways in which people made those determinations about song function, the researchers asked 1,000 internet users in the United States and India to rate the excerpts for three “contextual” features: (1) number of singers, (2) gender of singer(s), and (3) number of instruments. They also rated them for seven subjective musical features: (1) melodic complexity, (2) rhythmic complexity, (3) tempo, (4) steady beat, (5) arousal, (6) valence, and (7) pleasantness.

    An analysis of those data showed that there was some relationship between those various features and song function. But it wasn’t enough to explain the way people were able to so reliably detect a song’s function.

    Mehr and Singh say that one of the most intriguing findings relates to the relationship between lullabies and dance songs. “Not only were users best at identifying songs used for those functions, but their musical features seem to oppose each other in many ways,” Mehr says. Dance songs were generally faster, rhythmically and melodically complex, and perceived by participants as “happier” and “more exciting”; lullabies, on the other hand, were slower, rhythmically and melodically simple, and perceived as “sadder” and “less exciting.”

    The researchers say they are now conducting these tests in listeners who live in isolated, small-scale societies and have never heard music other than that of their own cultures. They are also further analyzing the music of many cultures to try to figure out how their particular features relate to function and whether those features themselves might be universal.


  4. Study suggests our trust in strangers is affected by their resemblance to previous acquaintances

    by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Our trust in strangers is dependent on their resemblance to others we’ve previously known, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers. Its results show that strangers resembling past individuals known to be trustworthy are trusted more; by contrast, those similar to others known to be untrustworthy are trusted less.

    The details of the research, conducted at New York University, are reported in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Our study reveals that strangers are distrusted even when they only minimally resemble someone previously associated with immoral behavior,” explains the work’s lead author, Oriel FeldmanHall, who led research as a post-doctoral fellow at NYU and who is now an assistant professor in Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences. “Like Pavlov’s dog, who, despite being conditioned on a single bell, continues to salivate to bells that have similar tones, we use information about a person’s moral character, in this case whether they can be trusted, as a basic Pavlovian learning mechanism in order to make judgments about strangers.”

    “We make decisions about a stranger’s reputation without any direct or explicit information about them based on their similarity to others we’ve encountered, even when we’re unaware of this resemblance,” adds Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the paper’s senior author. “This shows our brains deploy a learning mechanism in which moral information encoded from past experiences guides future choices.”

    Scientists have a better grasp on how social decision-making unfolds in repeated one-on-one interactions. Less clear, however, is how our brain functions in making these same decisions when interacting with strangers.

    To explore this, the researchers conducted a series of experiments centering on a trust game in which participants make a series of decisions about their partners’ trustworthiness — in this case, deciding whether to entrust their money with three different players who were represented by facial images.

    Here, the subjects knew that any money they invested would be multiplied four times and that the other player could then either share the money back with the subject (reciprocate) or keep the money for himself (defect). Each player was highly trustworthy (reciprocated 93 percent of the time), somewhat trustworthy (reciprocated 60 percent of the time), or not at all trustworthy (reciprocated 7 percent of the time).

    In a second task, the same subjects were asked to select new partners for another game. However, unbeknownst to the subjects, the face of each potential new partner was morphed, to varying degrees, with one of the three original players so the new partners bore some physical resemblance to the previous ones.

    Even though the subjects were not consciously aware that the strangers (i.e., the new partners) resembled those they previously encountered, subjects consistently preferred to play with strangers who resembled the original player they previously learned was trustworthy and avoided playing with strangers resembling the earlier untrustworthy player. Moreover, these decisions to trust or distrust strangers uncovered an interesting and sophisticated gradient: trust steadily increased the more the stranger looked like the trustworthy partner from the previous experiment and steadily decreased the more the stranger looked like the untrustworthy one.

    In a subsequent experiment, the scientists examined the brain activity of the subjects as they made these decisions. Here they found that when deciding whether or not the strangers could be trusted, the subjects’ brains tapped the same neurological regions that were involved when learning about the partner in the first task, including the amygdala — a region that plays a large role in emotional learning. The greater the similarity in neural activity between initially learning about an untrustworthy player and deciding to trust a stranger, the more subjects refused to trust the stranger.

    This finding points to the highly adaptive nature of the brain as it shows we make moral assessments of strangers drawn from previous learning experiences.

    The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Aging (AG 039283), part of the National Institutes of Health.


  5. Study suggests walking in groups can help keep exercise goals on track

    February 16, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Anglia Ruskin University press release:

    People may be more likely to stick to taking exercise if they walk in groups, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care.

    The research, led by Anglia Ruskin University, also found that group walking plays a part in improved physical activity and better quality of life.

    The review analysed 18 studies of physically healthy adults walking in groups compared with walking alone or not at all and found that people who had undertaken group walking were more likely to have kept up the exercise by the end of the study, which was an average of six months later.

    The authors also found that in five of the seven studies that measured quality of life outcomes, those who walked in groups showed significantly improved scores compare with those who did not, while in the other two studies there was no significant difference.

    The World Health Organisation recommends that adults undertake 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity per week. However, only 67% of men and 55% of women in the UK meet these guidelines. Dropout rates for exercise initiatives are also known to be high.

    Lead author Professor Catherine Meads, of Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Walking in groups is a safe and inexpensive intervention that can be delivered easily and successfully in the community.

    “At a time when we are being encouraged to meet physical activity guidelines, a large proportion of the public fail to do so. Our review found that people may be more likely to exercise if they have social support.

    Walking in groups tended to increase life satisfaction and may also improve social connectedness.”


  6. Study suggests adults with autism show diminished brain response to hearing their own name

    by Ashley

    From the Ghent University press release:

    Previously, research has shown that children at risk of an autism diagnosis respond less to hearing their own name. Now, a new study from the research group EXPLORA of Ghent University shows for the first time that the brain response to hearing one’s own name is also diminished in adults with an autism diagnosis. The study was conducted by Dr. Annabel Nijhof as part of her PhD project, supervised by Prof. Dr. Roeljan Wiersema and Prof. Dr. Marcel Brass.

    Whether you are at a party or in line at the supermarket, when you hear someone calling your name this usually elicits a strong orienting response. Hearing your own name typically signals that another person intends to attract your attention, and orienting to the own name is considered an important aspect of successful social interaction. Problems with social interaction and communication belong to the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Studies with infants at risk for ASD have indicated that a diminished orienting response to the own name is one of the strongest predictors for developing ASD. Surprisingly however, this had not yet been studied in individuals with an ASD diagnosis.

    In a new study from Ghent University, Belgium, the brain response to hearing one’s own name versus other names was compared between a group of adults with ASD, and a control group of adults without an ASD diagnosis. Participants in the study were listening to their own name, and names of close and unfamiliar others, but did not need to respond to these names. Meanwhile, their brain activity was being recorded.

    Results showed that, as expected, the brain response to one’s own name was much stronger than for other names in neurotypical adults. Strikingly, this preferential effect for the own name was completely absent in adults with ASD. Furthermore, this group difference was related to diminished activity in the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). Previous research has related the rTPJ to the processes of self-other distinction and mentalizing (representing another person’s mental states). During these processes, abnormal patterns of activity have been found in individuals with ASD.

    This study is the first to show that brains of adults with ASD respond differently when hearing their own name, suggestive of a core deficit in self-other distinction associated with dysfunction of the rTPJ. This novel finding is important for our understanding of this complex condition and its development, and warrants further research on the possibility to use the atypical neural response to the own name as a potential biological marker of ASD.


  7. Using virtual reality to identify brain areas involved in memory

    February 15, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Davis press release:

    Virtual reality is helping neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, get new insight into how different brain areas assemble memories in context.

    In a study published Jan. 18 in the journal Nature Communications, graduate student Halle Dimsdale-Zucker and colleagues used a virtual reality environment to train subjects, then showed that different areas of the hippocampus are activated for different types of memories.

    It’s well known that one memory can trigger related memories. We remember specific events with context — when and where it happened, who was there. Different memories can have specific context, as well as information that is the same between memories — for example, events that occurred in the same location.

    Dimsdale-Zucker and Professor Charan Ranganath at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology are interested in how the brain assembles all the pieces of these memories. They use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look for brain areas that are activated as memories are recalled, especially in the hippocampus, a small structure in the center of the brain.

    For this study, Dimsdale-Zucker used architectural sketching software to build houses in a 3-D virtual environment. The subjects watched a series of videos in which they went into one house then another. In each video, different objects were positioned within the houses. The subjects therefore memorized the objects in two contexts: which video (episodic memory) and which house (spatial memory).

    In the second phase of the study, the subjects were asked to try to remember the objects while they were scanned by fMRI.

    Being asked about the objects spontaneously reactivated contextual information, Dimsdale-Zucker said. Different regions of the hippocampus were activated for different kinds of information: One area, CA1, was associated with representing shared information about contexts (e.g., objects that were in the same video); another, distinct area was linked to representing differences in context.

    “What’s exciting is that it is intuitive that you can remember a unique experience, but the hippocampus is also involved in linking similar experiences,” Dimsdale-Zucker said. “You need both to be able to remember.”

    Another interesting finding was that in this study, the hippocampus was involved in episodic memories linking both time and space, she said. Conventional thinking has been that the hippocampus codes primarily for spatial memories, for example those involved in navigation.

    Virtual reality makes it possible to carry out controlled laboratory experiments with episodic memory, Dimsdale-Zucker said. A better understanding of how memories are formed, stored and recalled could eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatment for memory problems in aging or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.


  8. Study suggests body clock disruptions occur years before memory loss in Alzheimer’s

    by Ashley

    From the Washington University in St. Louis press release:

    People with Alzheimer’s disease are known to have disturbances in their internal body clocks that affect the sleep/wake cycle and may increase risk of developing the disorder. Now, new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates that such circadian rhythm disruptions also occur much earlier in people whose memories are intact but whose brain scans show early, preclinical evidence of Alzheimer’s.

    The findings potentially could help doctors identify people at risk of Alzheimer’s earlier than currently is possible. That’s important because Alzheimer’s damage can take root in the brain 15 to 20 years before clinical symptoms appear.

    The research is published Jan. 29 in the journal JAMA Neurology.

    “It wasn’t that the people in the study were sleep-deprived,” said first author Erik S. Musiek, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology. “But their sleep tended to be fragmented. Sleeping for eight hours at night is very different from getting eight hours of sleep in one-hour increments during daytime naps.”

    The researchers also conducted a separate study in mice, to be published Jan. 30 in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, showing that similar circadian disruptions accelerate the development of amyloid plaques in the brain, which are linked to Alzheimer’s.

    Previous studies at Washington University, conducted in people and in animals, have found that levels of amyloid fluctuate in predictable ways during the day and night. Amyloid levels decrease during sleep, and several studies have shown that levels increase when sleep is disrupted or when people don’t get enough deep sleep, according to research by senior author, Yo-El Ju, MD.

    “In this new study, we found that people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease had more fragmentation in their circadian activity patterns, with more periods of inactivity or sleep during the day and more periods of activity at night,” said Ju, an assistant professor of neurology.

    The researchers tracked circadian rhythms in 189 cognitively normal, older adults with an average age of 66. Some had positron emission tomography (PET) scans to look for Alzheimer’s-related amyloid plaques in their brains. Others had their cerebrospinal fluid tested for Alzheimer’s-related proteins. And some had both scans and spinal fluid testing.

    Of the participants, 139 had no evidence of the amyloid protein that signifies preclinical Alzheimer’s. Most had normal sleep/wake cycles, although several had circadian disruptions that were linked to advanced age, sleep apnea or other causes.

    But among the other 50 subjects — who either had abnormal brain scans or abnormal cerebrospinal fluid — all experienced significant disruptions in their internal body clocks, determined by how much rest they got at night and how active they were during the day. Disruptions in the sleep/wake cycle remained even after the researchers statistically controlled for sleep apnea, age and other factors.

    The study subjects, from Washington University’s Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, all wore devices similar to exercise trackers for one to two weeks. Each also completed a detailed sleep diary every morning.

    By tracking activity during the day and night, the researchers could tell how scattered rest and activity were throughout 24-hour periods. Subjects who experienced short spurts of activity and rest during the day and night were more likely to have evidence of amyloid buildup in their brains.

    These findings in people reinforce the mouse research from Musiek’s lab. In that study, working with first author Geraldine J. Kress, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology, Musiek studied circadian rhythm disruptions in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s. To disrupt the animals’ circadian rhythms, his team disabled genes that control the circadian clock.

    “Over two months, mice with disrupted circadian rhythms developed considerably more amyloid plaques than mice with normal rhythms,” Musiek said. “The mice also had changes in the normal, daily rhythms of amyloid protein in the brain. It’s the first data demonstrating that the disruption of circadian rhythms could be accelerating the deposition of plaques.”

    Both Musiek and Ju said it’s too early to answer the chicken-and-egg question of whether disrupted circadian rhythms put people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease or whether Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain disrupt circadian rhythms.

    “At the very least, these disruptions in circadian rhythms may serve as a biomarker for preclinical disease,” said Ju. “We want to bring back these subjects in the future to learn more about whether their sleep and circadian rhythm problems lead to increased Alzheimer’s risk or whether the Alzheimer’s disease brain changes cause sleep/wake cycle and circadian problems.”

    Reference: Kress, GJ, Liao F, Dimitry J, Cedeno MR, Fitzgerald GA, Holtzman DM, Musiek ES. Regulation of amyloid-beta dynamics and pathology by the circadian clock. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, Jan. 30, 2018.


  9. Study suggests emotional images sway people more than emotional words

    February 14, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Can your behavior be influenced by subtle, barely visible signals, such as an emotionally charged image briefly flashed on a TV screen or roadside billboard? It may sound like hysteria about covert advertising — but according to new research published in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, the answer is yes.

    Piotr Winkielman, of the University of California, San Diego, has been studying the effect for quite a while. In a previous study, Winkielman and colleagues reported that showing brief images of happy faces to thirsty people led them to drink more of a beverage immediately afterwards, whereas images of scowling faces led them to drink less. Remarkably, the participants were not aware of a change in their emotional state. In this new study, the researchers expanded the scope of their tests beyond faces to other images and words.

    “We wanted to compare two major kinds of emotional stimuli that people encounter in their life: words and pictures, including those of emotional faces and evocative images of objects,” says Winkielman. “We also tested if it matters whether these stimuli are presented very briefly or for a longer period of time.”

    The researchers asked undergraduates to classify objects, faces, or words on a computer screen. While showing a series of emotionally neutral images in quick succession, the researchers included brief flashes of faces, pictures or words that were either positive or negative. After the task, the researchers provided a soft drink and allowed the participants to drink as much as they liked.

    The first experiment compared the effect of emotive words, such as “panda” (positive) and “knife” (negative), with that of happy (positive) and angry (negative) facial expressions. The second compared the effect of emotive words with images of emotionally charged objects, such as a gun or a cute dog.

    As in previous studies, participants drank more after seeing happy faces than after seeing angry faces. Participants also drank more after seeing positive objects than after seeing negative objects. In contrast, positive words did not increase consumption.

    “We found that emotive images of objects altered the amount that participants drank, with ‘positive’ objects increasing consumption and ‘negative’ objects decreasing it,” says Winkielman. “But people were not swayed by emotional words, which were somehow powerless — even though the words were rated to be as emotive as the pictures.”

    Surprisingly, nearly invisible images — shown for only 10 milliseconds — had the same effect as clearly noticeable images shown for 200 milliseconds.

    “In our experiment, the duration of the emotional cue did not matter for its ability to influence consumption,” says Winkielman. “This echoes some previous studies, however we need stronger evidence to confidently claim that fleeting images work as well as more noticeable images in altering behavior.”

    Figuring out why emotive images are more powerful than emotive words is the researchers’ next task. They hypothesize that emotionally charged pictures may speak more directly to us than words, which can be nuanced and ambiguous, and may require more thought before they affect us.

    The results raise many questions: “We know from our other research that words in sentences are emotionally impactful, but why?” asks Winkielman. “Is it because they can conjure up images?”

    For now, at least, it appears that a single picture is worth more than a word. More than a thousand words? That’s yet to be discovered.


  10. Study suggests brain response to music can reveal if you have musical training

    by Ashley

    From the University of Jyväskylä press release:

    How your brain responds to music listening can reveal whether you have received musical training, according to new Nordic research conducted in Finland (University of Jyväskylä and AMI Center) and Denmark (Aarhus University).

    By applying methods of computational music analysis and machine learning on brain imaging data collected during music listening, the researchers we able to predict with a significant accuracy whether the listeners were musicians or not. These results emphasize the striking impact of musical training on our neural responses to music to the extent of discriminating musicians’ brains from non-musicians’ brains despite other independent factors such as musical preference and familiarity.

    The research also revealed that the brain areas that best predict musicianship exist predominantly in the frontal and temporal areas of the brain’s right hemisphere. These findings conform to previous work on how the brain processes certain acoustic characteristics of music as well as intonation in speech. The paper was published on January 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.

    The study utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain data collected by Professor Elvira Brattico’s team at Aarhus University. The data was collected from 18 musicians and 18 non-musicians while they attentively listened to music of different genres. Computational algorithms were applied to extract musical features from the presented music.

    “A novel feature of our approach was that, instead of relying on static representations of brain activity, we modelled how music is processed in the brain over time. Taking the temporal dynamics into account was found to improve the results remarkably,” explains Pasi Saari, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä and the main author of the study.

    As the last step of modelling, the researchers used machine learning to form a model that predicts musicianship from a combination of brain regions.

    The machine learning model was able to predict the listeners’ musicianship with 77 % accuracy, a result that is on a par with similar studies on participant classification with, for example, clinical populations of brain-damaged patients. The areas where music processing best predicted musicianship resided mostly in the right hemisphere, and included areas previously found to be associated with engagement and attention, processing of musical conventions, and processing of music-related sound features (e.g. pitch and tonality).

    “These areas can be regarded as core structures in music processing which are most affected by intensive, lifelong musical training,” states Iballa Burunat, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä and a co-author of the study.

    In these areas, the processing of higher-level features such as tonality and pulse was the best predictor of musicianship, suggesting that musical training affects particularly the processing of these aspects of music.

    “The novelty of our approach is the integration of computational acoustic feature extraction with functional neuroimaging measures, obtained in a realistic music-listening environment, and taking into account the dynamics of neural processing. It represents a significant contribution that complements recent brain-reading methods which decode participant information from brain activity in realistic conditions,” concludes Petri Toiviainen, Academy Professor at the University of Jyväskylä and the senior author of the study.

    The research was funded by the Academy of Finland and Danish National Research Foundation.