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Treatment of psychological disorders could become music to the ears

Researchers are looking into the way our brains perceive emotion in music. Image: Shutterstock/ Eugenio Marongiu
Researchers are looking into the way our brains perceive emotion in music. Image: Shutterstock/ Eugenio Marongiu

People who suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety or depression may like the sound of a new treatment that swaps pharmacology for music, thanks to a better understanding of how sound affects the neuronal pathways in the brain.

European researchers are investigating how the brain recognises and processes different sounds, and the results are providing new insight into questions as diverse as how music creates emotion and why brain lesions affect speech.

Jean-Julien Aucouturier of the French National Centre for Scientific Research leads the CREAM project, funded by the EU's European Research Council. It aims to engineer musical stimuli that can activate specific emotions, and therefore manipulate mood.

The aim of the project is to understand how different sounds trigger different emotions and to build a ‘bank’ of sounds that are precisely engineered to activate specific neuronal pathways in the brain.

They hope to create a radical, musical alternative to pharmacological treatments for mental distress, such as depression and anxiety disorders. It is hoped the treatment could also help those with autism and begin to rehabilitate people who have suffered a stroke.

‘The big question is why would music create any emotion at all?’

Jean-Julien Aucouturier, French National Centre for Scientific Research

‘The big question is: why would music create any emotion at all?’ said Aucouturier. ‘Biology suggests that emotion is linked to survival – if you go into the woods and you see a bear, you immediately feel fear and you run away. So why would a C or C# have the same effect?’

He believes the answer rests in the capacity of music to mimic the human voice or important threat signals from the environment.

‘Music can sound like something that is emotional – and it makes itself emotional by mimicking, for example, the emotional human voice. It might sound like a sad voice or an angry voice or one that consoles.

‘Maybe for the brain it’s the same signal. In other words, it can trick the brain.’

Mobilising neuronal pathways

Aucouturier is combining neuroscience, computer science and musical knowledge to analyse vocal frequencies related to emotions such as sadness, happiness and fear, and create ‘emotional’ sounds using special effects such as vibrato.

Researchers will then conduct a series of clinical trials with participants who are experiencing distress to see if they can predict the emotional effect of different kinds of sounds.

In the future people could be asked to listen to a personalised sound prescription designed to diagnose, or even treat, their particular psychological or neurological condition.

‘In other words, we can use music as medicine; we can synthesise music for a specific target,’ said Aucouturier. ‘For people who have depression, we can create sounds that can slowly rehabilitate them.

‘Music will become a cognitive technology, with algorithms able to engineer it to mobilise one neuronal pathway or another, non-intrusively and non-pharmacologically.’

Autism, stroke damage

In addition to creating a musical alternative to treatments for mental distress, such as depression and anxiety, it is hoped the treatment could also help those with autism and begin to rehabilitate people who have suffered a stroke.

People diagnosed with autism may have problems detecting the meaning of social cues in the face – for example frowning. It may be possible to use sound to cultivate the neuronal pathways necessary for the reading of emotional expression.

Aucouturier also hopes that music may be used in the rehabilitation of individuals who have suffered a stroke by stimulating the part of the brain not used by speech. This forces speech areas of the brain – damaged by stroke – to migrate to other areas, which are still functioning normally.

Developing a sonic treatment for neurological conditions depends on a deep understanding of how sound is processed in the brain. Scientists at the University of Glasgow, UK, have been researching the neuroscience behind how we identify the source of sounds, and the results could help to treat people with brain damage.

Dr Bruno Giordano led the EU-funded BRAININNATURALSOUND project, which finished in 2014. His team looked at how the brain recognises where a sound is coming from. In other words, how do we tell if a sound source is speech, music, the sound of a hammer, or the roar of a vacuum cleaner?

‘Essentially, the work is about understanding how the brain makes sense of the things around us,’ Dr Giordano said.

‘I was interested in seeing to what extent different cerebral reactions are observed when the brain is processing the identity not only of speakers, but also of musical instruments, and of environmental sound sources.’

The researchers showed that a particular area in the frontal lobe of the brain is key. The left posterior middle frontal gyrus appears to process the identity of all sound sources, irrespective of where they come from.

‘In other words, we have in the brain, a centre that is very busy with processing the identity of all of the sound sources we could encounter,’ Dr Giordano said.

It is hoped the research will shed light on why people who have suffered particular brain lesions find it hard to process speech or environmental cues.

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