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The brain and all that jazz in Edinburgh
From 9 to 12 June 2011, the Assembly Hall, New College, University of Edinburgh was home to approximately 400 researchers sharing their latest findings in how the brain processes music and how music affects the brain. The central theme of this year's The Neurosciences and Music conference, organised by the Mariani Foundation and locally hosted by scientific chair Dr. Katie Overy, was "Learning and Memory". Researchers were invited to present on the subthemes of infants and children, musicians and non-musicians, disabilities and aging, and therapy and rehabilitation. Featuring a keynote lecture by Prof. Alan Baddeley, the conference provided a forum for discussion amongst neuroscientists, psychologists, clinical neurologists, clinical psychologists, therapists, as well as music performers, educators and musicologists - a broad spectrum of attendees, who all left having gained something of interest to their field of work.
A first theme to emerge from the presentations and poster sessions, featuring nearly 250 posters, was the study of musical learning and neural plasticity. After discussing the neural bases of music processing and the emergent and learnt aspects of rhythm perception, researchers demonstrated that expertise in one style of music or one musical culture alters the way the brain processes music. Alongside these discussions, the conference explored issues relating to sensitive periods for learning, absolute pitch, mental representations and mental imagery, musical preferences, musical performance, and the neural correlates of emotional music perception. This within-music strand of the conference also addressed musical disorders, such as amusia and musical memory disorders, as well as music processing within other disorders such as autism spectrum disorders and Williams' syndrome.
The impact of plasticity on other areas of perception and cognition, most notably language, formed a second strand. Music training was shown to affect selective attention for the hearing of speech in noise, to affect the functional architecture of working memory for tones and phonemes, to develop speech segmentation, and to enhance the detection of pitch changes in speech. Several hypotheses concerning these effects of music training were explored, opening up exciting avenues of future research into the neural mechanisms underlying transfer effects between distinct domains of human cognition.
The third strand of this conference focussed on the therapeutic role of music. From dystonia to tinnitus, via aphasia, sensory-motor deficiencies and visual neglect, music was shown to aid recovery not only by providing clear auditory feedback for precise physical movements, but also by aiding cortical reorganisation. The therapeutic role of music was also demonstrated in Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Williams' syndrome and autistic spectrum disorders. Many of the researchers presented moving case studies of patients either verbalising for the first time, or regaining motor and linguistic functions which had been lost through stroke, converting many music-therapy-sceptics through evidence of music playing a decisive role in the treatment of a wide range of neurological conditions.
The conference also provided an opportunity to learn about new methods. Behavioural and neuroimaging methods with infants, social observations of music making, reports of musical kindergartens, new techniques for the rehabilitation of stroke patients - no field of study was left short of new methods for tackling important questions. Attendees will also have noted the strong presence of PhD students and prospective PhD students, for whom this conference was followed by a European Brain and Music (EBRAMUS) workshop, held by the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD). These two extra days were a further opportunity for them to develop their understanding of key issues surrounding music and the neurosciences, and learn about the role music can play in community and therapeutic settings.
Opened by Scottish music and ceilidh dancing, the conference ended with an open concert and a scratch jazz gig in which the speakers', poster presenters' and delegates' unleashed musical alter egos let music have the final word. Until the next conference, that is. Music and Neurosciences V is provisionally scheduled for 2014 in France. The fourth edition will, according to this year's attendees, be very hard to beat (no pun intended).
For the program, visit tinyurl.com/6ek46h6
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