Rhythm Does A Brain Good

  • MIckey Hart
    Photo: The Recording Academy
  • Adam Gazzaley
    Photo: The Recording Academy

By Crystal Larsen
Austin, Texas

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There was never a better time to have a conversation about the healing powers of music during South by Southwest than today. Early this morning the lives of two SXSW attendees came to a tragic end as they were hit by a car on Red River Street in downtown Austin. Before kicking off his "Rhythm And The Brain" panel this afternoon at the Austin Convention Center, Mickey Hart, GRAMMY winner and former drummer for the legendary Grateful Dead, took the stage to pay his respects to those individuals who lost their lives with a brief moment of silence.

But where there's pain and loss, there has to be hope. And today's panel offered a glimpse of hope for individuals suffering from neurological disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Hart, along with neurologist and University of California, San Francisco professor Adam Gazzaley, brought to light one big question: How can we fix brain rhythm disorders?

While this question has puzzled doctors and scientists for decades, with recent related research projects earning funding through the GRAMMY Foundation's Grant Program, Dr. Gazzaley, along with a team of researchers, is on the cusp of releasing a groundbreaking brain rhythm therapy technology called "Neurodrummer," a custom-designed virtual reality rhythm training game directed at enhancing rhythmic abilities and helping people with neurological diseases.

Here are five things I learned about rhythm and the brain at Hart and Gazzaley's panel:

Rhythm is the most essential ingredient to life
There are three worlds that rhythm operates in: nature, body and culture. Without rhythm there wouldn't be waterfalls, heartbeats, brainwaves or, of course, music.

Rhythm is fundamental to how our brain organizes and understands information
There are multiple rhythms moving throughout the brain at different frequencies. Disruptions in this rhythm, also known as dysrhythmia, are associated with pathological disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Music is medicine
Hart told a brief story about playing drums for his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Whenever he'd play drums for her, she'd remember who he was and speak his name. And when he stopped, all memory was lost again.

A 3-D video game can enhance cognitive control
In 2013 Gazzaley and a team of UCSF scientists reported that they found a way to reverse negative effects of aging on the brain via a video game designed to improve cognitive control. This video game, "Neurodrummer," was demoed by Hart during the panel, giving attendees a firsthand look at the rapid response of brainwaves to sound and 3-D visuals. (An actual image of his brain that was captured during an earlier MRI was displayed onscreen and waves were seen moving throughout in real time.)

Hart's brain is the best "you'll ever see"
In one of the more comical moments during the panel, an audience member asked Gazzaley if he thinks Hart has an "atypical brain." Gazzaley joked that it's unlike any other he's ever seen while Hart added, "It's the best brain you'll ever see."

Gazzaley and Hart took a few more questions from the audience, one of which challenged the potential negative effects of Gazzaley's video game technology. The doctor noted two challenges: the potential of addiction and high cost for patients. Gazzaley added that with research there's always a yin and a yang and nothing is ever perfect, but what's important is that this kind of research and therapy continues to be explored.

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