Song remains the same for researcher

Jessica Grahn doesn’t do ‘fluffy.’ Not at all.

The Western University neuroscientist with the Brain and Mind Institute studies timing, rhythm and movement by understanding how the brain processes music. Her work goes beyond mere personal passion, and may offer potential clinical treatments for movement and balance disorders like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, even stroke and traumatic brain injury.

But, she admits, getting to this point in her career – one ready to take a giant leap forward – required a journey to convince herself of the work’s worth in the scientific community.

“I was nervous, probably rightly so, about being seen as ‘too fluffy,’” she said. “If you’re studying music, a very artsy thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing neuroscience and music, it is still considered very fluffy. You should be studying how hearing works or how language work. Something serious.”

Arriving at Western from the University of Cambridge in 2010, her area of study has been drawing more and more interest – and funding – in recent months. This week’s Juno Award nominations and this weekend’s Grammy Awards ceremony have turned two nations’ attention to music. But music has always been the soundtrack to Grahn’s life and research.

She started playing piano at age 5 on a beautiful yet untunable instrument. That way, her mother thought, should Grahn give up on playing, at least the family home would have a nice piece of furniture. But she would continue, and go on to study piano and cello as an undergrad.

All the while, she would read the latest articles – ones often sent by her biomedical engineer father – tying neuroscience and music together. “Even as a teenager, I thought the brain was really cool,” she said.

She brought classical music albums as a kid, and would record other music off the radio. The first album she ever purchased was a Rachmaninov concerto; the first song she ever recorded was an Information Society cover of ABBA’s Lay All Your Love on Me.

In university, she played in orchestras, and later would join a band when she started at Cambridge for her graduate work. There, the classically trained Grahn met lead singer, and future husband, Adrian Owen, also a Western neuroscientist, who introduced her to a different sound. She would take over on bass when the band lost its bass player to become editor of the journal PLoS Genetics.

“I started playing music that was totally different than I ever grew up with,” she said. “And that was a blast, really fun and informal.”

When she started graduate school, she intended to study how humans commit massively complex patterns of movements to memory – like, say, playing the piano –and how that memory differs from other types of memories. “But after a while, it became clear I was thinking of these questions in terms of music training, using musicians as a special population to examine these questions, so I just gave in and went in that direction,” Grahn said.

In just a few years, she has seen the scientific community’s perception of the pursuit change. And while she stressed the importance of continued diligence when it comes to defending the area, she is thriving in its acceptance. “The knee-jerk reaction isn’t so strong anymore. People say, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ as opposed to ‘Really? Hmmm, why not study something real.’”

Grahn hopes to answer fundamental questions about human rhythm abilities and behaviours, including how rhythm links to language and how musical training affects other nonmusical abilities. She also hopes to fine-tune precise musical therapies for patients, which is particularly relevant for Canada’s aging population as older people are disproportionately affected by gait disorders.

Her work has already started attracting attention. And dollars.

In Spring 2010, Ted and Sara Hewitt donated $100,000 to honour Sara’s father,  R.K. “Bob” Macdonald, a lifelong radio man. Toward the end of his life, he battled Parkinson’s disease until he died in 2006.

Western’s former vice-president (research) helped recruit Grahn and Owen to Western. Intimately familiar with the power of Grahn’s work, he saw a potential match. And so the the R.K. ‘Bob’ Macdonald Parkinson’s Research Fund was born.

“We were trying to find a way to commemorate his work, and in some way support research to help alleviate some of the problems he had,” Hewitt said. “We hope we’ve given her a bit of a leg up.”

Hewitt hopes the gift helps establish Grahn, allow her to hire a graduate student or two, but more importantly help her leverage more funding for her work. “You tend to attract money after you have already attracted money,” Hewitt said.

Last month, Grahn and her team received $112,035 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund to establish her lab. In addition to portable equipment that will allow for patient-centred research, the funding will also further enhance MRI facilities at the Robarts Research Institute. Other funding possibilities are on the horizon including from the Grammy Foundation for unique research centred on a direct comparison between monkeys and humans in movement to music and rhythm.

All combine to form the basis of a work that might not have been without Grahn’s determination.

“If what you are doing interests you, it doesn’t feel like work,” Grahn said. “If it is something intrinsically interesting to you, it doesn’t matter what other people think.”