Friday, 1 April 2016

Expressive Singing In Parkinson's Disease


By: Esztella Vezer 

Based on the findings of a novel study that our lab conducted last year, last June we set up a choir exclusively for people with Parkinson’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the muscles of the body, including the face and vocal cords. Through emotionally expressive singing, the choir is specialized to target facial expressiveness and vocal deficits that are so common in Parkinson’s, and our research team is currently tracking improvements in these areas. The first term of the choir ended in early September, but its popularity and impact motivated everyone involved to help keep it going. With several fundraising performances by the choir, the generosity of donors enabled us to keep the choir singing into the fall and winter, and there are exciting plans to expand the program even further. 


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Seniors Improving Neurocognitive Goals through Song (SINGS): Teaching your brain to hear better while learning how to sing.


By: Ella Dubinsky

   As we age, most adults experience some degree of hearing loss. Although hearing aids can be used to amplify sound, many adults suffering from normal age-related declines simply learn to live with this impairment. One issue that both aided and un-aided older adults experience is a difficulty tracking speech in a noisy environment, making it hard to hear one person talking in a crowded room. This has been linked to an age-related degradation of the neural mechanisms with which the brain encodes auditory signals; basically, as we age, our brains get worse at processing what we’re hearing, making it harder to distinguish a relevant voice from background noise. This can make it harder for aging adults to participate in group conversations and social events, which can lead to feelings of isolation and emotional withdrawal. As such, finding a way to help people preserve and regain this ability is essential.

   One thing that seems to help is a life of music. Aging musicians have been shown to experience less neuronal degradation in auditory signal processing than non-musicians, along with an enhanced ability to track pitch changes and voices in a noisy environment. However, short-term musical training has not yet been explored as an intervention to assist those already suffering from hearing loss. Researchers at Ryerson University’s SMART Lab are asking the question: can we use music to help older adults train their brains, and in doing so, improve their hearing? And can we make the process engaging and fun?


   The current study investigates whether taking part in a 10-week group singing program can improve hearing and cognitive functioning in aging adults. Participants (aged 50+), recruited through the 50+ program, take part in weekly group choir sessions and complete online musical training for 10 weeks. Individuals come into the lab at the beginning and end of the program, for pre- and post-training assessments of hearing and cognition. Early findings are very promising; participants show significant improvements in speech-in-noise perception, pitch discrimination, and the neural response to sound, as well as cognitive measures of attention. These results lend support to the use of choir participation and musical training as an intervention for older adults, to help mitigate age-related auditory and cognitive declines. Don’t be surprised if someday your family doctor recommends joining a singing group to help with your hearing!

Monday, 13 July 2015

The SMART Lab Singers: Improving Age-Related Hearing Difficulties Through Choir Lessons


By Saul Moshé Steinberg and Dr. Frank Russo 

This is a reproduction of an article that was originally published in RSPP Newsletter (June, 2015):

            Many older adults who experience little difficulty hearing in quiet environments will report having trouble understanding speech in the presence of competing background noise. This is often first noticed when attempting to follow a conversation at a large social gathering, in which many people are talking at the same time. While amplifying the audio signal through a modern digital hearing aid equipped with noise reduction can often go a long way towards correcting the problem, in many cases there is still a residual difficulty that persists. Part of the problem may lie in age-related changes in the brain.             

Specifically, many older adults experience a degradation of neural timing in brain mechanisms responsible for encoding the pitch of the voice. Being able to follow the pitch of a speaker's voice helps to alert the listener to conversational cues, particularly in noisy situations. Several researchers have recently proposed the idea that musical engagement may be a means of supporting this neural timing. Research has found that musicians show significantly less age-related decline in their ability to detect speech in noise as compared to non-musicians. Further, studies have shown that musicians demonstrate more precise neural timing as compared to non-musicians. Actively engaging in music requires the ability to track and discriminate
multiple sources of complex sounds, just as a listener must do when attending to a single voice among many. However, studies have not shown that being a musician directly increases the neural timing of sound. So far studies have only shown that musicians happen to show more accurate neural timing than non-musicians.
            For our current study, we are interested in determining whether older adults with mild hearing loss can show improvements in their ability to understand speech in noise as a result of short-term musical training. Specifically, we are testing the effects of singing training through group choir lessons. Since January of 2015, 14 older adults have attended weekly choir sessions over a 13-week period. Participants were also required to complete one hour of homework per week, through the use of online music training software, designed to aid users to improve voice pitch control. So far, the results are very promising. There has been significant improvement in the ability to perceive speech in noise as a result of the choir training. In addition, participants have shown improvement in their ability to discriminate pitch, which is important for tracking speaking voices. These preliminary findings suggest that short-term musical training is able to mitigate some of the age-related difficulty in hearing that is experienced by older adults.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Vocal Template

The US national anthem is notoriously difficult to sing. One problem is that it spans a wide range. If a singer chooses the wrong key, or drifts from the key they intended, they can find themselves struggling to hit notes at the very top or bottom of their range.

Most melodies are not as hard to sing as the US anthem. Besides having a narrower range, melodies tend to have notes spaced closely together, with not so many leaps between notes. Researchers call this universal feature of melodies pitch proximity.

SMART Lab director Frank Russo has proposed (here and here) that constraints such as pitch proximity may accommodate ease of vocal production. In other words, with or without their awareness, musicians have a template of what a melody should sound like that is based on what people can sing. It makes sense that musicians should tend to constrain their melodies in this way. Our first exposure to music-making is through singing. And it remains the easiest way of producing the music that is in your head.



What are the implications for instrumental melodies? For example, unlike with singing, on a piano it is just as easy to play a large leap than a small one. Therefore, we might expect a relaxation of pitch proximity in instrumental melodies. In fact, we recently showed that in a large sample of melodies, "skips", i.e., larger intervals that skip over one or more scale notes (e.g., from do to fa), occur more often in instrumental melodies than vocal ones.

We also showed that, when skips do occur in vocal melodies, they most often fall in the lower (i.e., more comfortable) part of the range. We refer to this as low-skip bias. Interestingly, although we found less low-skip bias in instrumental melodies, it was still apparent. This was puzzling since, unlike with singing, on many instruments (e.g., piano, strings) it is just as easy to play a high skip as a low one. 

In a follow-up study, we showed that, even though instrumentalists may not face the same motor constraints as singers, low-skip bias in instrumental melodies may still be related to the application of a vocal template. The figure below plots how often skips occur in the instrumental melodies of nineteen classical composers as a function of how much vocal music they wrote. The more vocal music a composer wrote, the more they were inclined to have low skips in their instrumental melodies (left panel), and the less they were inclined to have high skips (right panel).

These findings are consistent with the idea that, whether writing for the voice or an instrument, musicians' melodic choices are influenced by singability.

As music perception researchers, we are interested in how a listener's vocal template may impact how she listens. For example, a recent study showed people (including trained pianists) are better at remembering vocal melodies than instrumental ones. What about expectancy? Many researchers consider music's emotional power to lie in its ability to fulfill and deny our expectations. Are expectations for what note comes next in a melody shaped by an awareness of what is singable?

Monday, 28 July 2014

How Music Moves Us

This is a reproduction of an article that was originally published in themarknews.com (January 28, 2011):





Music may be an art, but science can help explain why it makes us feel powerful emotions.
A number of reasonable proposals have been tabled over the years in an effort to explain how we experience emotion in music. This article outlines a few of these proposals and one in particular concerning movement, which has been gaining some attention recently in the growing field of music cognition.
“Ring a bell and I’ll salivate/how’d you like that?”
Conditioning, or learning by association, is no doubt involved in our emotional response to music. We can develop a learned response to a neutral stimulus when it is paired with another stimulus that is clearly positive or negative. It’s remarkable how quickly those awkward feelings of middle school can come flooding back when we’re exposed, willingly or not, to that romantic last song of the last dance.
“It goes like this/the fourth, the fifth/the minor, fall the major lift”
“Hallelujah,” originally recorded by Leonard Cohen, with covers by K.D. Lang and Rufus Wainwright
Many structural aspects of music will give rise to expectations. Some of these expectations are culturally specific, while others appear more universal. For example, a large leap in a melody – such as the octave that occurs at the start of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow” – will give rise to the same expectation regardless of whether it’s experienced in Manhattan or Mumbai. The expectation is that the melody will change direction following the leap. If this expectation is denied by a continuation of the melody in the same direction, our autonomic nervous system gets a jolt, much as it would if a tiger were to enter the room. This jolt opens a window to emotional experience. However, other aspects of the music, which lie beyond the expectancy-denying event, are necessary in order to shape the interpretation of the emotional experience.
“Wild thing/I think you move me”
“Wild Thing,” originally recorded by The Wild Ones, with covers by The Troggs, Bryan Adams, and others
The etymology of the word “emotion” can be traced back to emovere from medieval Latin, which means “to move.” Indeed, emotions tend to have their own characteristic patterns of movement – for instance, the slow and heavy movements associated with sadness or the intense and abrupt movements associated with anger. Sensitivity to the patterns of movement displayed by those around us provides us with important nonverbal insight that helps us to navigate our social world.
The idea of music conveying a sense of movement has a long history. Movement can be implied in music through the speed of event onsets, the range of pitches, and the smoothness of transitions between pitches, to name but a few variables. Making sense of all this implied movement may require the mirror neuron system, a collection of neurons in the frontal and parietal cortex that responds to the execution and observation of goal-directed actions. My students and I believe that the mirror neuron system runs a simulation of the actions necessary to create the music, which in turn activates primitive emotion networks.
“Keep smiling through/just like you always do/till the blue skies/drive the dark clouds far away”
–“We’ll meet again,” originally recorded by Vera Lynn, with covers by Johnny Cash, The Byrds, and others
It’s interesting to note that people observing song will routinely display subtle muscle activation that is consistent with a singer’s facial movements. This muscle activation is normally too subtle to observe by eye, but it can be detected by recording changes in the electrical potential at the surface of the skin using electromyography. Within approximately 100 milliseconds of seeing and hearing a singer smile, previous research in our lab suggests that the audience is already smiling in response (albeit subtly). This example of social contagion is likely an automatic feed-forward consequence of the movement simulation referred to above. It stands to reason that if this automatic process is kept up for long enough, the smiling will rub off and influence our own mood.
In sum, we experience emotion in music through conditioning, through culturally specific as well as universal expectations, and through the internal simulation of movement.

-- Frank Russo

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Benefits of Creative Arts Therapies for Autism

**If you would like to be involved in autism research happening in our lab, or hear updates about our new autism video game, click here to join our mailing list!**



Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a growing number of individuals all over the world. It is characterized by difficulties in communication. These include perceiving emotions in other individuals, language production, and emotion regulation.

In our social world, we connect to people by subtly imitating each other. Many dating and job websites often recommend mimicking gestures of an employer or a person of interest in order for that person to feel closer to you. This is a behaviour that actually happens naturally and non-consciously in many everyday social interactions. Mimicry facilitates closeness, as a result of us perceiving the other person as being more akin to ourselves, and therefore we accept them more readily. In addition, it is thought that we understand their emotions more readily, because we are producing echoes of those same emotional expressions ourselves. In autism, this tendency to imitate across verbal and body language is impaired, leading to deficits in social understanding and acceptance.

Photo source: http://www.hanen.org

Arts-based therapies provide an abstract route of communication that reaches individuals with autism. The enjoyment factor also creates a safe environment to experiment with imitation. It’s often been found that autistic individuals respond more towards emotion that is directed through song and creating visual art. While there is lots of room to conduct more research, initial research findings are incredibly promising. In the present article we will address a few of these findings and discuss the mechanisms by which these arts therapies may work. We will also discuss these findings in relation to work in our own laboratory, where we have found beneficial effects of song and movement therapy for children with autism.



Music

Music therapy provides a promising route to emotional communication training and behaviour regulation in autism. In 1964, Norddoff and Robins developed Improvisational Music Therapy, which incorporated the use of musical instruments as voice during conversation. This therapy was later developed into Creative Music Therapy, yielding positive results in communicative responses from once non-verbal children.

Photo source: www.hanlen.com


Drawing from Nordoff and Robins, Miller and Toca developed Melodic Intonation Therapy in 1979. They paired signs, then words with musical tones to assist in speech production with a 3-year-old nonverbal autistic boy. After 35 sessions, the child was capable of producing, responding, and understanding simple sentences. 

Auditory Integration Training therapy has been used to treat self-destructive behaviour. A particular study that adopted this methodology managed to eliminate head-jerking in an 11 year-old. The method teaches beat entrainment to metered music that mimics the rhythm of a relaxed heartbeat. The goal effect is for the listener to relax with entrainment. In a way, it is teaching listeners how to relax by bopping to Pink Floyd rather than Metallica.

Combining elements of Dance and Music therapy may prove to be effective in enhancing imitation and behaviour regulation, as well as emotional control and social interaction. In a more recent preliminary study conducted in 2013, sixteen adults with severe autistic syndrome participated in activities that involved drum and dance, expressive story-telling, and learned genre-specific dances such as the rhumba. Although more testing needs to be done, the results after 4 months of training have shown remarkable changes in the participants. See our review paper here for more information on the potential benefits of dance/movement therapy for autism.

Dance

In Dance and Movement Therapy (DMT), an individual is able to express internal impulses and emotions through guided and controlled movement. Through synchronous movement with others, dance has also been shown to enhance empathic understanding and social connectedness. In two studies that involved group dance and “follow the leader” activities, both autistic groups showed a decrease in stimming behaviour and aversive touch responses. There was also an increase in eye contact and the use of communicative gesture. These studies span from 1978 to 2001, suggesting that the success of Dance Movement Therapy is not just a recent finding. 



Photo source: www.fitfutures.com

Drama 

Drama has been found to be a promising avenue to promote prosocial behaviours in autistic children. In one recent study, ASD participants aged 6-17 were paired with 8 typically developing children (peers). The children participated in a musical theatre production, and peers performed the participant’s roles on video for the participants to watch and practice at home via video modelling. Children with autism showed improvement on identification of faces and theory of mind skills. 

Photo source: blog.camperoo.com/

In another study, children with ASD were provided with drama therapy in their schools. The drama therapists introduced structured ways of saying hello/goodbye, singing songs, playing ball games and drama games, storytelling, imaginary play, movement work, and relaxation. According to parent/caregiver and teacher feedback, improvements in five themes were found: feelings (a safe place to explore), peers (being included and making friends), social skills (role play provides a short cut to learning about and practicing social skills), structure (predictability lessens anxiety), and family (drama therapy supports families as well). These findings suggest that drama therapy is a suitable intervention for people with autism.

In a recent study involving children with Asperger’s syndrome, each student was given time on stage to explore different roles that involved improvisation, role-play, and movement work. The students reported greater self-confidence, self-esteem, cooperation, and emotional expression. It appears that drama therapy is a prosocial venture that could help kids with autism to flourish socially.

There are further case studies that demonstrate individual situations in which actingsongvisual art, or a combination, have helped families to make breakthroughs with their ASD children. While future research should use groups of individuals in order to be sure of the beneficial effects of arts therapies, current findings are incredibly promising.



Future Directions

In our own lab, we are currently using song, slowly scaled back to speech, in order to facilitate understanding of emotions in sentences for children with autism. We also ask the participants to mimic the emotional expressions of individuals in videos. This action may help them feel as though they were expressing the emotion themselves, and project how they feel during that type of expression while discerning the expression of the other person. So far, we have found that many of the children improve following 2 weeks of playing a video game that capitalizes on these methods. On the basis of our preliminary results, we have received a government grant to further develop the video game for tablet devices (eg., iPad). The new version of the game will be released in October, 2014. 
              
       


How does it work?

What exactly is it that makes these arts therapies so effective? There are a few different mechanisms at play here. The opportunity to become specialized in a certain activity is definitely one – there is plenty of research showing that mastery of a discipline enhances self-esteem. Even after one class, these kids can feel proud about having learned something new. In time, their talents will increase, along with their confidence.


A second mechanism involves the areas of the brain that are stimulated when people engage in artistic endeavours, especially music and dance. The mirror neuron system, which is noted to be deficient in activity during perception of other people in autism, is engaged during dance and music. It is even engaged by just watching dance or listening to music, but this is increased when actually participating. Synchronizing one’s movements with another person makes this system become especially engaged. Our theory is that when these kids engage in music or dance therapy, they are exercising the part of their brain that is important for social understanding.


Music presents itself on a multi-synchronous level due to the coordination of vocal inflection, entrainment to beat and meter, and facial manipulation in order to articulate notes. By pairing music with imitation therapy, a multi-modal system of synchrony in imitation is produced. Entrainment to the beat may help with the efficiency of movement production. In addition, since many individuals with ASD respond positively to music, this pairing seems promising in social development training


A third mechanism relates to synchronization. Spontaneous, or non-conscious mimicry of postures and positions of peers is an example of matching yourself to the surrounding social environment. Known as the chameleon effect, mimicry during social interaction creates rapport and encourages more prosocial behaviour. Kids with autism exhibit some deficits when it comes to timing, as well as binding of audio and visual information. Music and dance both rely heavily on proper timing. In many cases, learning of music and dance involves moving in synchrony with an instructor or moving in synchrony with a group of peers. Synchronous movement has been shown to assist in cooperation, liking, trust, and empathy for the person we are moving in synchrony with


Think of when you were in school and were part of a choir, or had to sing “Oh Canada” with your classmates in the morning. It’s been found that this kind of synchronous behaviour enhances camaraderie. In terms of autism, it is quite possible that practice with synchronous behaviour will help with two things:

          1.  It will help them practice moving synchronously, and to practice their general timing skills.
          2.  Through practice with synchronous movement, they may carry this skill over to their everyday life, which could benefit them in terms of enhancing emotional understanding and trust for other people.

You can participate!

The message is a positive one when it comes to arts therapies and autism. If you are interested in learning more about research going on in autism therapy, and new research applications, click here to join our mailing list. You can also participate in a study we are currently running in the SMART lab at Ryerson University. We are looking for kids aged 8-12, with high-functioning autism, as well as neurotypical kids who do not have autism for our comparison group, to take part in a video game singing study aimed at enhancing social skills and emotional understanding. We are measuring changes in brain activity, emotional responsiveness, and social behaviours that evolve as a result of the therapy. So far, we are seeing some promising benefits of synchronous singing and speaking on social deficits in autism.


Written by Lucy McGarryEmma Bortolon-Vettor, Abby Tong, and Frank Russo

Monday, 9 June 2014

Music as social glue

In Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a primitive chant whips Jordan Belfort's stock brokers into a euphoric state of solidarity. (Note: NSFW. Chanting starts at about 1:00.) The chest-beating rhythm and wordless tune (consisting of just four pitches) evoke our early ancestors singing and dancing before a hunt.


In fact, recent psychological findings are at least consistent with the idea that human music-making evolved as a social bonding mechanism. Rhythmically moving together is unique among cooperative activities in its ability to promote feelings of social affiliation and empathy. Young children are more likely to engage in helpful behaviour with someone after they have rhythmically moved together.

 Why should rhythmically moving together act as such a powerful social glue? One idea increasingly supported by neuroscience is that the act involves simulating or "playing out" another person's actions without necessarily producing them yourself. Simulating another person's actions may allow you to gain insights into their emotional state and make predictions about their future actions in a more direct way than through observation. For this reason, simulation may have had survival value for our early ancestors in deciding whether someone is friend of foe. Likewise, performing easily-simulated, predictable rhythmic movements, like clapping your hands or stomping your feet at regular intervals, may be an effective means of signalling good will towards others.

One interesting recent study showed evidence for simulation among musicians using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS sends electrical impulses to the scalp that can be used to selectively impair parts of the brain temporarily and harmlessly. The experimental task was to play a right hand piano part in synchrony with an audio recording of the left hand part. Prior to the experiment, one group of musicians had no exposure to the left hand part. The other group practised playing the left hand part, which, upon subsequent hearing, would presumably elicit a motor simulation of those actions required to produce it.

In the experiment, both groups played the right hand part in synchrony with an audio recording of the left hand part. The recording contained accelerations and decelerations in tempo typical of an expressive music performance. At tempo changes, TMS was delivered to the right motor cortex (which controls the left hand). Remarkably, only the group that had practiced the left-hand part beforehand were impaired in their ability to follow the tempo changes. This suggests they had been attempting to simulate the actions required to produce the audible left-hand part. More strikingly, extent of impairment was greatest for those individuals that showed a stronger tendency to adopt others' perspectives on an empathy questionnaire.