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

    February 18, 2018 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.


  2. 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.


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

    February 14, 2018 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.


  4. Study suggests motivational music increases risk-taking but does not improve sports performance

    February 11, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    A new study finds that listening to motivational music during sport activities and exercise increases risk-taking behavior but does not improve overall performance. The effect was more noticeable among men and participants who selected their own playlist. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, also found that self-selected music had the power to enhance self-esteem among those who were already performing well, but not among participants who were performing poorly.

    Listening to motivational music has become a popular way of enhancing mood, motivation and positive self-evaluation during sports and exercise. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence of music being used in this way, such as the famous Maori “Haka” performed by New Zealand’s national rugby team to get into the right mindset before games. However, the psychological processes and mechanisms that explain the motivational power of music are poorly understood.

    “While the role of music in evoking emotional responses and its use for mood regulation have been a subject of considerable scientific interest, the question of how listening to music relates to changes in self-evaluative cognitions has rarely been discussed,” says Dr. Paul Elvers of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and one of the study’s authors. “This is surprising, given that self-evaluative cognitions and attitudes such as self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy are considered to be sensitive to external stimuli such as music.”

    The research team investigated whether listening to motivational music can boost performance in a ball game, enhance self-evaluative cognition and/or lead to riskier behavior. The study divided 150 participants into three groups that performed a ball-throwing task from fixed distances and filled in questionnaires while listening to either participant-selected music, experimenter-selected music or no music at all. To assess risk-taking behavior, the participants were also allowed to choose the distances to the basket themselves. The participants received monetarily incentivized points for each successful trial.

    The data show that listening to music did not have any positive or negative impact on overall performance or on self-evaluative cognitions, trait self-esteem or sport-related anxiety. However, it did increase the sense of self-esteem in participants who were performing well and also increased risk-taking behavior — particularly in male participants and participants who could choose their own motivational music. Moreover, the researchers also found that those who made riskier choices earned higher monetary rewards.

    “The results suggest that psychological processes linked to motivation and emotion play an important role for understanding the functions and effects of music in sports and exercise,” says Dr. Elvers. “The gender differences in risk-taking behavior that we found in our study align with what previous studies have documented.”

    However, more research is required to fully understand the impact of motivational music on the intricate phenomena of self-enhancement, performance and risky behavior during sports and exercise.

    “We gathered evidence of the ability of music to increase risk-taking behavior, but more research is needed to improve the robustness of this finding. Additional research is also needed to address the potential mechanisms that may account for the finding. We believe that music’s ability to induce pleasure as well as its function with respect to self-enhancement serve as promising candidates for future investigations,” Dr. Elvers concludes.


  5. Study looks at differences in brain activity between jazz and classical pianists

    January 20, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: “No, that’s hilarious. […] It’s like a chosen practically impossible thing […] It’s [because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for either of those two things.” Where non-specialists tend to think that it should not be too challenging for a professional musician to switch between styles of music, such as jazz and classical, it is actually not as easy as one would assume, even for people with decades of experience.

    Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig demonstrated that there could be a neuroscientific explanation for this phenomenon: They observed that while playing the piano, different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists’ brains, even when performing the same piece.

    “The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians–be it to skilfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise in jazz. Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult”, says Daniela Sammler, neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the current study about the different brain activities in jazz and classical pianists.

    One crucial distinction between the two groups of musicians is the way in which they plan movements while playing the piano. Regardless of the style, pianists, in principle, first have to know what they are going to play–meaning the keys they have to press–and, subsequently, how to play–meaning the fingers they should use. It is the weighting of both planning steps, which is influenced by the genre of the music.

    According to this, classical pianists focus their playing on the second step, the “How”. For them it is about playing pieces perfectly regarding their technique and adding personal expression. Therefore, the choice of fingering is crucial. Jazz pianists, on the other hand, concentrate on the “What”. They are always prepared to improvise and adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies.

    “Indeed, in the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for this flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano”, states Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. “When we asked them to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical pianists. Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance.” Interestingly, the classical pianists performed better than the others when it came to following unusual fingering. In these cases their brains showed stronger awareness of the fingering, and consequently they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.

    The scientists investigated these relations in 30 professional pianists; half of them were specialized in jazz for at least two years, the other half were classically trained. All pianists got to see a hand on a screen which played a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering. The professional pianists had to imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while their brain signals were registered with EEG (Electroencephalography) sensors on the head. To ensure that there were no other disturbing signals, for instance acoustic sound, the whole experiment was carried out in silence using a muted piano.

    “Through this study, we unravelled how precisely the brain adapts to the demands of our surrounding environment”, says Sammler. It also makes clear that it is not sufficient to just focus on one genre of music if we want to fully understand what happens in the brain when we perform music–as it was done so far by just investigating Western classical music. “To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest common denominator of several genres”, Sammler explains. “Similar to research in language: To recognise the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German.”


  6. Brain structure linked to hallucinations and musical aptitude

    December 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    New research published in Schizophrenia Research conducted at the University of Liverpool links brain structure to an individual’s likelihood of experiencing hallucinations and to their musical aptitude.

    Previous research has showed that musicians have increased white matter integrity in a specific part of the brain called the corpus callosum, a thick band of nerve fibres that connects the left and right halves of the brain, enabling communication between the hemispheres.

    In psychotic individuals with auditory verbal hallucinations the integrity of the corpus callosum has been found to be reduced.

    Researchers from the University’s Psychological Sciences department identified 38 healthy individuals aged between 18 and 63 and tested their propensity to hallucinate, musical aptitude and measured their detailed brain structure using an MRI scanner.

    The researchers observed that participants with higher musical aptitude showed lower hallucination proneness. More importantly, the research revealed musical aptitude was positively associated with corpus callosum integrity whereas hallucination proneness was associated with lower integrity in the fibres connecting the two hemispheres of the brain.

    A statistical analysis indicated that the relationship between hallucination proneness and musical aptitude is mediated by microstructure in the corpus callosum.

    Of the study Researcher Amy Spray said: “These results could have important clinical implications. If musical aptitude increases the white matter integrity of the corpus callosum, musical training could potentially counteract an individual’s predisposition of hallucinations.

    “Future research should address whether rehabilitation approaches that include musical training can benefit patients with psychosis.”


  7. Study suggests repetition can make sounds into music

    December 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville press release:

    Water dripping. A shovel scraping across rock. These sounds don’t seem very musical. Yet new research at the University of Arkansas shows that repeating snippets of environmental sounds can make them sound like music.

    The new findings from the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas build upon research by Diana Deutsch and colleagues. These researchers showed that repetition can musicalize speech, a phenomenon they called “speech-to-song” illusion. Researchers at the University of Arkansas Music Cognition Lab have now demonstrated that repetition can also musicalize non-speech sounds. They call this a “sound-to-music” illusion.

    This underscores the role of repetition in generating a musical mode of listening and shows that the effect does not depend on the special relationship between music and speech, but can occur for broader categories of sound.

    The findings will be published in the journal Music & Science in early 2018.

    In their article, “The sound-to-music illusion: Repetition can musicalize nonspeech sounds,” doctoral student Rhimmon Simchy-Gross and music professor Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis demonstrate that repetition can musicalize environmental sound, whether the clips are presented in their original sequence or in a jumbled version, contrasting with previous research on speech, where the effect only occurred for exact replications.

    “This difference suggests that what works as a repetition depends not just on the acoustic characteristics of the sound, but also its function,” Margulis said. “Jumbling speech sounds disrupts the words’ meaning, but jumbling the components of a string of environmental sounds doesn’t change the fact that it sounds like water dripping or a shovel scraping across rock.

    “Composers and performers have been playing with repeated sound samples and speech for more than 50 years,” Margulis said. “Like so much else in the cognitive science of music, this research is inspired by actual musical practice. It uses new experimental methods to pursue some of the ideas about repetition’s special role in musicalization outlined in my 2014 book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.”

    Researchers used digitally excised clips of 20 environmental sounds, ranging from a bee buzzing to machine noise. They played each clip a total of 10 times to measure the reaction of participants, who rated them along a spectrum from “sounded exactly like environmental sound” to “sounded exactly like music.” The degree of musicality participants heard in the clips rose with repeated exposure.

    “In other words, sound that initially seemed unambiguously like environmental noise, through the simple act of repetition, came to sound like music,” Margulis said. “The sounds themselves didn’t change, but something changed in the minds of the listeners to make them seem like music. This finding can help future studies investigate the characteristics that define musical listening.”


  8. Study suggests mu­sic and nat­ive lan­guage in­ter­act in the brain

    December 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Helsinki press release:

    The brain’s auditory system can be shaped by exposure to different auditory environments, such as native language and musical training.

    A recent doctoral study by Caitlin Dawson from University of Helsinki focuses on interacting effects of native language patterns and musical experience on early auditory processing of basic sound features. Methods included electrophysiological brainstem recording as well as a set of behavioral auditory discrimination tasks.

    The auditory tasks were designed to find discrimination thresholds for intensity, frequency, and duration. A self-report questionnaire on musical sophistication was also used in the analyses.

    “We found that Finnish speakers showed an advantage in duration processing in the brainstem, compared to German speakers. The reason for this may be that Finnish language includes long and short sounds that determine the meaning of words, which trains Finnish speakers’ brains to be very sensitive to the timing of sounds,” Dawson states.

    For Finnish speakers, musical expertise was associated with enhanced behavioral frequency discrimination. Mandarin speaking musicians showed enhanced behavioral discrimination in both frequency and duration. Mandarin Chinese language has tones which determine the meaning of words.

    “The perceptual effects of musical expertise were not reflected in brainstem responses in either Finnish or Mandarin speakers. This might be because language is an earlier and more essential skill than music, and native speakers are experts at their own language,” Dawson says.

    The results suggest that musical expertise does not enhance all auditory features equally for all language speakers; native language phonological patterns may modulate the enhancing effects of musical expertise on processing of specific features.


  9. Study suggests brain stimulation can change how much we enjoy and value music

    November 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the McGill University press release:

    Enjoyment of music is considered a subjective experience; what one person finds gratifying, another may find irritating. Music theorists have long emphasized that although musical taste is relative, our enjoyment of music, be it classical or heavy metal, arises, among other aspects, from structural features of music, such as chord or rhythm patterns that generate anticipation and expectancy.

    Now, researchers from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University have proven it is possible to increase or decrease our enjoyment of music, and our craving for more of it, by enhancement or disruption of certain brain circuits.

    Previous studies using brain imaging found that listening to pleasurable music engages brain circuits involved in reward anticipation and surprise, known as the fronto-striatal circuits. However, nobody had ever tested whether these circuits are essential to musical reward, or if they can be manipulated, leading to changes in subjective and physiological measures of experienced musical pleasure.

    In order to modulate the functioning of fronto-striatal circuits, the researchers from the lab of Robert Zatorre used a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic pulses to either stimulate or inhibit selected parts of the brain. In this case, the researchers applied TMS over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Brain imaging studies have shown that stimulation over this region modulates the functioning of fronto-striatal circuits, leading to the release of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in reward processing.

    In three separate sessions, the researchers applied either excitatory, inhibitory or no real TMS over the left DLPFC to healthy participants. After the stimulation, participants listened to their own favorite music as well as a music selection chosen by the researchers. While listening to the music, participants had to rate in real-time their enjoyment of the music, and the researchers also measured their psychophysiological responses. In addition, participants were offered the opportunity to purchase the music selected by the researchers, using real money, in order to measure their motivation to listen to the music again.

    The researchers found that, compared to the control session, liking of music, psychophysiological measures of emotion and participants’ motivation to buy music were all enhanced by excitatory TMS, while all of these measures were decreased by inhibitory TMS.

    “Their findings show that the functioning of fronto-striatal circuits is essential for our enjoyment of music. This indicates that the role of these circuits in learning and motivation may be indispensable for the experience of musical pleasure,” says Ernest Mas Herrero, a postdoctoral fellow and the study’s first author.

    Mas Herrero is now using a combination of TMS and functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine which specific regions and circuits are responsible of the changes found in this study.

    “Showing that pleasure and value of music can be changed by the application of TMS is not only an important — and remarkable — demonstration that the circuitry behind these complex responses is now becoming better understood, but it also has possible clinical applications,” says Robert Zatorre, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery and the study’s senior author. “Many psychological disorders such as addiction, obesity, and depression involve poor regulation of reward circuitry. Showing that this circuit can be manipulated so specifically in relation to music opens the door for many possible future applications in which the reward system may need to be up- or down-regulated.”


  10. Neuroscientists identify source of early brain activity

    November 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Maryland press release:

    Some expectant parents play classical music for their unborn babies, hoping to boost their children’s cognitive capacity later in life. While some research supported a link between prenatal sound exposure and improved brain function, scientists had not identified any structures responsible for this link in the developing brain.

    A new study led by University of Maryland neuroscientists is the first to identify a mechanism that could explain such an early link between sound input and cognitive function, often called the “Mozart effect.” Working with an animal model, the researchers found that a type of cell present in the brain’s primary processing area during early development, long thought to form structural scaffolding with no role in transmitting sensory information, may conduct such signals after all.

    The results, which could have implications for the early diagnosis of autism and other cognitive deficits, were published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 6, 2017.

    “Previous research documented brain activity in response to sound during early developmental phases, but it was hard to determine where in the brain these signals were coming from,” said Patrick Kanold, a professor of biology at UMD and the senior author of the research paper. “Our study is the first to measure these signals in an important cell type in the brain, providing important new insights into early sensory development in mammals.”

    Working with young ferrets, Kanold and his team directly observed sound-induced nerve impulses in subplate neurons for the first time. During development, subplate neurons are among the first neurons to form in the cerebral cortex — the outer part of the mammalian brain that controls perception, memory and, in humans, higher functions such as language and abstract reasoning. Subplate neurons help guide the formation of neural circuits, in the same way that a temporary scaffolding helps a construction crew build walls and install windows on a new building.

    Much like construction scaffolding, the role of subplate neurons is thought to be temporary. Once the brain’s permanent neural circuits form, most of the subplate neurons die off and disappear. According to Kanold, researchers assumed that subplate neurons had no role in transmitting sensory information, given their temporary structural role.

    Conventional wisdom suggested that mammalian brains transmit their first sensory signals in response to sound after the thalamus fully connects to the cerebral cortex. In many mammals used for research, the connection of the thalamus and the cortex also coincides with the opening of the ear canals, which allows sounds to activate the inner ear. This coincident timing provided further support for the traditional model of when sound processing begins in the brain.

    However, researchers had struggled to reconcile this conventional model with observations of sound-induced brain activity much earlier in the developmental process. Until his group directly measured the response of subplate neurons to sound, Kanold said, the phenomenon had largely been overlooked.

    “Our work is the first to suggest that subplate neurons do more than bridge the gap between the thalamus and the cortex, forming the structure for future circuits,” Kanold said. “They form a functional scaffolding that actually processes and transmits information before other cortical circuits are activated. It is likely that subplate neurons help determine the early functional organization of the cortex in addition to structural organization.”

    By identifying a source of early sensory nerve signals, the current study could lead to new ways to diagnose autism and other cognitive deficits that emerge early in development. Early diagnosis is an important first step toward early intervention and treatment, Kanold noted.

    “Now that we know subplate neurons are transmitting sensory input, we can begin to study their functional role in development in more detail,” Kanold said. “What is the role of sensory experience at this early stage? How might defects in subplate neurons correlate with cognitive deficits and conditions like autism? There are so many new possibilities for future research.”

    Kanold’s findings are already drawing interest from researchers who study sensory development in humans. Rhodri Cusack, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, noted that the results could have implications for the care of premature infants.

    “This paper shows that our sensory systems are shaped by the environment from a very early age,” Cusack said. “In human infants, this includes the third trimester, when many preterm infants spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit. The findings are a call to action to identify enriching environments that can optimize sensory development in this vulnerable population.”