September 18, 2013
Rhythm Closely Linked To Language In Brain
[ Watch the Video: Rhythm And Reading Go Hand In Hand ]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Researchers at Northwestern University have found that people who can keep a beat are more responsive to speech neurologically than those with less rhythm, according to a report published in this week’s Journal of Neuroscience.
Study author Nina Kraus, a professor at Northwestern University and head of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, pointed out that previous research has already made a connection between reading aptitude and neural response consistency. The researchers said their findings could mean that musical training might be useful in sharpening the brain's response to language.
"By directly linking auditory responses with beat-keeping ability, we have closed the triangle," said Kraus, describing the connection between brain activity, music and language.
Because hearing speech and associating specific parts of it with written words is important in learning how to read, the Northwestern neuroscientists said that the link between reading and beat keeping likely has a common foundation in the auditory system.
In the study, the Northwestern team recruited over 120 local Chicago high school students and gave them two tests. For the first test, the participants were asked to listen to a steady beat and tap their finger along to it on a pad that registered how closely their touches synced to the beat.
For the second test, the researchers used a technique called electroencephalography (EEG) to record the consistency of participants’ brain response to a repeated syllable – “da.”
"Across this population of adolescents, the more accurate they were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brains' response to the 'da' syllable was," Kraus said.
"This is supported biologically," she continued. "The brainwaves we measured originate from a biological hub of auditory processing with reciprocal connections with the motor-movement centers. An activity that requires coordination of hearing and movement is likely to rely on solid and accurate communication across brain regions."
"Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language," Kraus explained. "And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding."
For example, comprehensible speech requires changes in talking speed or emphasis. Subtle timing differences, such as the difference between making the "b" and "p" sounds, can make for significant differences in meaning. Also, hearing these distinctions is necessary to connect the sounds with the letters that they represent.
"Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses," Kraus said. "It may be that musical training - with its emphasis on rhythmic skills - can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read."
John Iversen, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved with this study, raised the possibility that musical training could have important impacts on the brain, based on the Northwestern team’s results.
"This study adds another piece to the puzzle in the emerging story suggesting that musical rhythmic abilities are correlated with improved performance in non-music areas, particularly language," he said.
Kraus is currently performing a longitudinal study that examines the effects of music training by beat-keeping ability, neural response consistency, reading and other language skills in children as they receive music instruction year after year.