Jessica Grahn, Assistant Professor,
Department of Psychology,
Brain and Mind Institute,
Western University
Psychosocial Research Grant: $100,000 over two years

Investigating how music and sound affect movement

Neuroscientist Jessica Grahn already knows that listening to music helps people with Parkinson’s disease lengthen their strides and move faster as they walk, instead of freezing in place. What she doesn’t know is why music helps, and what regions of the brain it stimulates.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Grahn, an assistant professor at Western University in London, Ontario, is investigating the specific pathways and connections in the brain that link sound and movement, to pinpoint the regions of the brain that are involved.

Grahn will scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease while they are listening to their favourite music. At the same time, they will flex their feet on levers to move a representation of themselves through a virtual environment displayed via goggles.

“That’s as close as we can get to real walking while you are lying down in an fMRI scanner having your brain imaged,” says Grahn.

Grahn is testing the theory that music acts as an external timing cue to tell people when they should move; using motor systems in the brain that are unaffected by Parkinson’s to compensate for the systems that are damaged and impede movement and timing. Alternatively, music may trigger activity in the pleasure/reward centres in the brain. These reward centres may also be connected to areas of the brain that control movement, but were previously dormant until they were needed to compensate for depleted brain cells.

The brain scans will help Grahn and her colleague determine which pathways in the brain are involved for each individual – pathways that may differ depending on the individual’s music selections. They will also measure people’s gaits before and after listening to their chosen music.

The project’s goal is to optimize the use of music and particular songs, based on the brain activity Grahn observes, to see if that will get people to take longer strides and to move faster, to overcome freezing in place and preventing falls. Both freezing and falling often keeps people with Parkinson’s disease at home, afraid to go out and interact socially.

“Overall, we’re trying to improve mobility and independence,” she says.

If Grahn’s research is successful, it could provide physiotherapists and occupational therapists with some easy methods to help people with Parkinson’s socialize and enjoy a better quality of life.