Mapping ‘the magic’ of music, movement and the brain

Neuroscientist Jessica Grahn awarded prestigious NSERC research fellowship

Jessica Grahn is a 2021 recipient of an E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the National Sciences Education and Research Council (NSERC) (Sylvie Li / Shoot Studio)




By Keri Ferguson

November 17, 2021

A new research grant for Western neuroscientist and psychology professor Jessica Grahn will open more opportunities to investigate the link between music and movement, and potential interventions to help Parkinson’s disease patients.Jessica Grahn

Jessica Grahn (Sylvie Li/Shoot Studio)

Grahn has been awarded a 2021 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The prestigious fellowship comes with a $250,000 research stipend and two years of protected research time.

The award recognizes Grahn’s major contributions to the fields of psychology and neuroscience as the first researcher to establish the neural link between hearing musical rhythm and spontaneous activation of the brain’s motor control system.

As a member of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute (BMI), Grahn investigates why humans move to rhythm. “I am interested in how the sound processing system in the brain creates magic in the movement system (portion) of the brain,” Grahn said.

In her music and neuroscience lab, Grahn uses fMRI, gait monitoring and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to examine how different motor areas in the brain respond to different rhythms. She is also investigating how rhythm and music may be processed in the brains of those with dysfunction in movement areas, such as patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Western’s interdisciplinary environment attracted Grahn from the University of Cambridge more than a decade ago. Having access to state-of-the-art technology and the support of collaborative, highly trained colleagues “is crucial to winning an award like this,” Grahn said. “I can apply the technique that best suits the type of research I’m conducting, with very little overhead, and without having to start from scratch like many other early-stage researchers.”

Music, movement and the brain

Growing up, Grahn was drawn to playing other people’s pianos until her parents conceded and bought one of their own. “They chose one that looked pretty in case my interest didn’t last,” she said.

Their purchase netted a good return on investment, with Grahn taking lessons from an early age and throughout high school.

A second passion emerged as she began musing the mysteries of the mind.

“In junior high school I became interested in the brain and how it held the key to how we come to be who we are and why we do the things we do,” she said. “I was very intentional at looking for universities where I could do a double degree because I didn’t want to compromise on either music or the neuroscience at the time, I was passionate about both.”

True to her plan, Grahn graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago with a BA/BMus double degree in neuroscience and piano performance.

By the time she was in graduate school at Cambridge, “the topics I was interested in and the way I wanted to study them were influenced by my experiences as a pianist,” Grahn said. At first, she wondered if she could find her niche, and is grateful for the flexibility of her PhD supervisor. His interest in anecdotal evidence on music’s effects on Parkinson’s disease patients aligned with her questions around rhythm, beat and “this special magic music has as the only sound in our environment that evokes movement.”

“That meshed quite well with beat being the thing that might be helping Parkinson’s patients improve the steadiness of their walking and a cue that supports them,” she said.

Today, Grahn continues to explore how a steady, clear beat can help Parkinson’s patients overcome their characteristic shuffling gait, and the subtle deficits they experience in beat perception. Although music therapy can’t “cure” a patient with Parkinson’s, it can, as the video below demonstrates, significantly improve the speed of their movement, the length of their steps and the quality of their life.

Cross-species clues

A large part of Grahn’s work focuses on the individual differences in how we respond and accurately move to a beat.

With the support of the Steacie fellowship, Grahn hopes to advance her work in cross-species comparisons that may ultimately guide training interventions that allow Parkinson’s patients to better access and feel beat.

“Part of what I am interested in about rhythm and music and its effect on us is to understand the circuitry in the brain, and why it is we don’t see this in our closest evolutionary relatives,” she said. “When we look at monkeys, we do not see this bias toward musical sound, whereas some species of birds seem to have responses more similar to us.”

Demand for duet of disciplines

Part of Grahn’s daily excitement lies in the possibilities that arise from working alongside other researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute and across campus.

She’s currently involved in a sleep study, exploring how the rhythm of music might promote the consolidation of memory, while her students consider how virtual reality could impact their work.

Her long-term vision includes exploring interdisciplinary initiatives with the Don Wright Faculty of Music, the National Centre for Audiology, psychology and the Brain and Mind Institute.

While Grahn once stood out for her interests in music, cognition and the brain, she’s now witnessing a growing interest in the field. “People studying music want to know more about music psychology, and how to apply it to answer questions about musical behaviour.

“This is the world I grew up in, with a music and science degree. I know where both sides are coming from and that’s just so hard to replicate without giving people a foot firmly planted in both worlds. I think Western has the potential to do that and uniquely so, in Canada.”

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