A new study out of Jessica Grahn’s music lab suggests music training may preserve certain rhythmic motor training abilities in early-stage Parkinson’s disease.
Grahn, a psychology professor and member of the Western Institute for Neuroscience, combines her unique background as a classically trained concert pianist and training as a neuroscientist to focus on why humans move to rhythm, and how and why movement and rhythm may be connected in the brain.
“Humans naturally perceive and move to a music beat, falling into the rhythm through clapping, tapping and dancing,” she said. “Yet the accuracy of this seemingly effortless behaviour varies widely across individuals.”
Beat perception and production abilities can be improved by experience such as music or dance training, and as previous studies have shown, can also be impaired by neurological changes, including in Parkinson’s disease.
Using data collected over a series of smaller studies, Grahn, along with Emily Ready, MSc (OT)’17, PhD’19 and Prisca Hsu, BSc’21, saw an opportunity to investigate how musical training might affect Parkinson’s patients.
“We were curious whether musical training might alter what we usually see in people with Parkinson’s, in that they are slightly worse at the ability to tap and feel the beat,” Grahn said.
Beat and movement
Grahn’s team drew data from three different participant groups for the study – healthy young adults, healthy older adults and adults with early-stage Parkinson’s disease. All had varying degrees of music and dance training.
Participants performed beat alignment tests (BAT) requiring them to execute two tasks: listen to music and identify if superimposed metronome beeps occur on and off the beat, and then, while listening to several short pieces of music, tap along to the beat.
“These are important tasks in a lot of different studies we do,” said Grahn. “For example, does one’s ability to feel the beat predict how well an intervention of walking to music will work for them?”
It did not surprise Grahn and her team to find that for the younger adults, those with musical training did slightly better in both perceiving the accuracy of the beat and producing it with taps.
“In general, we found participants with over three years of music training had more accurate beat perception than those with less training,” Grahn said. “Interestingly, Parkinson’s disease patients with music training had beat production (tapping) abilities comparable to healthy adults, while Parkinson’s disease patients with minimal to no music training performed significantly worse.
“For perception of the beat we didn’t find that strong an effect on how accurately they could feel or perceive it,” Grahn said. “But when we had people tap to the beat, Parkinson’s patients who had no musical training were much less accurate than both older adults and younger adults. The Parkinson’s patients who had musical training were on par with other groups.”
No effects were found in healthy adults for dance training, and too few Parkinson’s disease patients had dance training to reliably assess its effects.
Music in mind
The finding that musically trained Parkinson’s disease patients performed similarly to healthy adults during the tapping task, while untrained patients did not, suggests music training may preserve certain rhythmic motor timing abilities in early-stage Parkinson’s disease.
“It gives us some hope that those who have this experience of musical training may be more receptive,” Grahn said. “It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for other people too, but it means a lifetime of music experience seems to relate to an improvement, even if you have Parkinson’s.”
Either way, it’s an important step toward a growing knowledge on the long-term effects of music training, suggesting it may preserve certain motor timing functions related to beat processing in early-stage Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s sometimes assumed if someone has a neurological disorder, the person will be terrible at everything,” Grahn said. “What’s nice here is, we can tease it apart and show they may still get the benefit of the beat, because they hear it. Often it is about what’s preserved. This means, for example, some of these training interventions we use may still be able to work when we ask them to tap along. They’re not as good at it but the system (in their brain) that hears and reacts to the beat still seems to be working for them.”