Investigating the loss of musical ability

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Amusia is a severe musical disorder that affects both the perception and production of music. It can be either congenital, inherited, or acquired, that is, a condition caused by brain damage. Although amusia has been known in neurology since the late 19th century, the neural basis and mechanisms of music processing and related disorders are still not fully understood.

A study by a group of researchers from Finland and the United States has now provided new information on the origins of amusia in the brain and differences in the processing of music and language, respectively.

The results are published in Journal of Neuroscience.

Music resides in the right temporal lobe

Music processing in the brain is complex, involving several parts and systems. Frontotemporal regions that contribute significantly to such processing are also important for language functions.

However, contrary to what might be expected, amusia can also manifest independently of aphasia, a language disorder resulting from brain damage. This is why researchers have come to believe that music uses as yet unknown neural connections in the brain that are distinct from language functions.

The new study found that strokes that cause amusia are located in several brain regions with no common denominator. The researchers also managed to find the brain network affected by such strokes. This was done with the help of network analysis based on functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“The method allows us to localize the affected brain network when the damage occurs in different brain regions but causes the same symptoms,” says University researcher Aleksi Sihvonen from the University of Helsinki.

Unlike language functions located in the left hemisphere of the brain, the neural network behind amusia focuses on the right hemisphere. Its main node was the superior temporal gyrus. A progressive loss of brain tissue was observed in this region at six months of follow-up; the extent of such loss was accompanied by the severity of the amusement.

This means that the superior temporal gyrus may be a promising target in the treatment and rehabilitation of amusia.

“Overall, our findings highlight differences between the perception and processing of music and language in the brain,” notes Sihvonen.

Treatment and rehabilitation potential

The prevalence of congenital amusia in the population is only about 2%, but acquired amusia is much more common. For example, amusia after a cerebrovascular disturbance occurs in up to two-thirds of patients in the acute phase of the disease and in about one-third in the chronic phase.

Amusia is also associated with aprosodia, a disorder in the interpretation of language prosody or rhythm and melody strings, resulting in an inability to interpret and convey emotion in speech. This has implications for the social interactions of patients with cerebrovascular disorders and of course affects their ability to work, especially if their profession is closely related to music.

“Although amusia is usually not as debilitating or serious a symptom as aphasia, it can have a significant effect on a patient’s well-being, hobbies and quality of life,” says Sihvonen.

Therefore, the researchers say that assessing amusia would be particularly important for patients with cerebrovascular disorders for whom music-based rehabilitation is planned or who work with music.

More information:
Aleksi J. Sihvonen et al, Focal brain lesions causing acquired amusia map to a common brain network, Journal of Neuroscience (2024). DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1922-23.2024

Magazine Information:
Journal of Neuroscience

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