BRAIN Lab: Putting scholarship and hearts in the right place

Together experts in occupational therapy, psychology, social work, exercise physiology, neuroscience, biological sciences, and medicine neurology and music therapy are learning how music can help those with neurological disorders. 
The opiates the young mother used during pregnancy passed through the umbilical cord to her baby. Now that her baby is born, she does not know how to soothe or sing a lullaby to her crying child.

A group of children, exposed early in life to trauma, are unable to express their emotions—until they learn to use music to do so. Music becomes their language, their key to empathy for others.

A group of graduate students sing from sheet music, then sing again by improvising. The level of oxytocin in their brains, a hormone that facilitates bonding with others, appears to rise dramatically when the singers improvise and even more when they sing together.

These are just some of the research projects currently underway in the BRAIN lab at Western Michigan University. The Laboratory for Brain Research And Interdisciplinary Neurosciences, or BRAIN, is an interdisciplinary research center founded in 2011 by Ed Roth, a music therapy professor, to pursue primarily translational and clinical research using various neuroscience-driven methodologies.

"It was an idea three, four years in the making," Roth says. "It began with team building, getting a team together of people who had the scholarship we needed and also their hearts in the right place."

Holding meetings every other week or so, Roth brought to the table experts in occupational therapy, psychology, social work, exercise physiology, neuroscience, biological sciences, and medicine neurology, adding his own expertise in music therapy.

"We weren’t the traditional lab in that we started with informal discussions," Roth says. "The work developed organically; we had our own ideas and we responded to proposals. Word got out, and people started coming to us who had shared interests."

Roth’s team is committed to the interdisciplinary approach, he says, even when it means giving up at times one’s own area of interest. The BRAIN lab includes full members, affiliate members, collaborators, and graduate students. In other words, Roth says, "those who are willing to give to the greater good. And the rose still has not lost its bloom. In 2014, we’ve hit a fever pitch with projects we are actively involved in."

Michelle Suarez, assistant professor of occupational therapy, is working with Roth on a study combining occupational therapy and music therapy with infants prenatally exposed to opiates. The project has been nearly four months in the planning, and mothers with their infants are currently being gathered to participate in the study. The mothers have to be drug-free to participate in the study. They are under methadone therapy.

"Combined clinical experience tells us that if we can give these mothers the skills they need, we can change the child’s developmental trajectory and avoid the pitfalls of falling behind before they’ve even entered school," Roth says. "The things that most mothers do naturally, like rock and cuddle their babies, sing lullabies to them, these mothers don’t do."

Therapists will provide interventions and strategies built around how infants perceive sound, sights, touch, movement, and translate that information into experiences that will regulate their arousal.

"For instance, when mothers sing to their infants, the oxytocin hormone, or 'love' hormone, is released," says Roth. "Early-stage evidence tells us that music causes or increases oxytocin release, at least in the mothers and possibly in the infants. There’s a sing-song component to the ways mothers talk to their children. There’s a natural rhythm to how mothers communicate with their infants. We think we can facilitate this bonding."

The same flush of oxytocin that one experiences during intercourse, Roth says, happens also in child birth. It can happen again in these bonding moments between mother and child, facilitated by music.

Another study focuses on children ages 3 to 6 who have experienced significant traumas, again combining occupational and music therapy to help them learn how to self-regulate behaviors. Amanda Ziemba, a graduate student in music therapy, is directing this study with Roth.

"We are using a trauma-informed, resiliency-focused, brain-based model. We hope to help these children do all the things other kids do socially, emotionally, cognitively so that they can learn along with others when they enter the classroom. These children have experienced singular traumas, physical abuse, neglect or ongoing emotional abuse."

Roth admits it isn’t always easy to maintain a clinician’s distance when working with these children. "As researchers, we can’t be involved on that level, but our hearts do get broken. We use our skill set to help them and keep the situation in context. I don’t think it’s grandiose to say we are treating the community by treating its most vulnerable."

In a collaborative project with John Hopkins University, graduate student Jason Keeler explores the brain activity of children while improvising on a musical keyboard using fMRI neuroimaging techniques.

"These are children ages 8 to 12 who have been diagnosed with alexithymia, an inability to experience or express emotions," Roth says. "One piece of the underlying theory is that music may have developed before speech, a kind of superior language. With music, these children are able to express their emotions."

In this study, when children are asked to improvise on a piano keyboard, much the same way that a jazz musician improvises, areas of the brain are activated that include areas connected with empathy.

"We are finding that the prefrontal cortex in the brain becomes activated in these children just as it does in a professional musician, even though the children have no musical training, and it can lead to uninhibited self-expression."

A similar study involves vocal improvisation as compared to singing composed music. By drawing a small sample of blood from participants, oxytocin levels are measured before and after improvisation and before and after singing prepared music. Comparisons are also being measured between solo singing and singing in a quartet.

"Improvising is more closely related to verbal dialogue, so we expect to see higher oxytocin levels during improvised singing," says Roth. Because of the presence of oxytocin, those singing in groups are also expected to show a feeling of connectedness, produced by singing together.

Roth’s hope, he says, with all of the BRAIN lab research projects is to provide evidence that will remove barriers due to insufficient evidence to providing therapy. "By rigorous research, our goal is to show the most effective, evidence-based interventions for the most vulnerable populations. To me, the question is: What can we learn about the body’s response to music and how can we use that to help people?"

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Susan Andress

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