Music and Neurosciences IV

Day 1 – Workshop on infant methodologies

This weekend, dear reader, I find myself in Bonny Scotland! I am attending a conference called ‘Music and Neurosciences 4’ (see my conference page for links) According to the conference booklet the central theme to the meeting is ‘Learning and Memory’, and there are various symposia that focus on different subthemes including ‘Adults; musicians and nonmusicians’, ‘Therapy and Rehabilitation’ and ‘Disabilities and Age-related issues’. So obviously there is a lot to cover! There are over 240 posters as well as about a dozen invited speakers over 4 days.

I wish I could summarise all of the wonderful work being presented here for you. But unfortunately, I am a little slower than usual after a fall on campus on Wednesday left me with a sprained left hand. Typing now with one hand is intensely frustrating! But nevertheless I shall do my best to bring you an insight into the conference.

Day 1 (Thursday 9th June) began very early for me with a 5.30am bus. You see some interesting sights at this time of the day in London (the man walking his ferrets was the highlight this morning), but it was a lovely sunny day so I sat back and enjoyed the ride to Gatwick.  I arrived at the airport in plenty of time to have my wrist bandage searched and swabbed for drugs, and to glance around the many peculiarities on offer to the modern day globe trotter. Having opted out of the £1600 Harrods teddy bear I headed to my morning Edinburgh flight, alongside a handful of stressed looking business women and men in beautifully précised tailored suits.

On arrival I headed to my Ibis hotel near the Royal Mile to de-camp my back-pack and freshen up. The sun was breaking through the clouds and I decided on a little Italian place on the Mile for my lunch. I then made my way to the conference to pick up my customary name tag and complementary conference bag (with assorted pens and leaflets).

The conference is being held in the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh’s New College – a very ornate and grand setting, not unlike the old college halls in Cambridge. When I walked into the first talk with the research team from Aarhus (Denmark) my friend Bjorn commented ‘ Wow…we have our conference with Harry Potter!’

 The afternoon session on the first day was focused on paradigm methods for working with children. The three talks I attended, before I had to rush to meet an old friend, all looked at non-invasive imaging techniques which have so far been rare and difficult with young children.  A brief summary of each talk follows:

1)      Amir Lahav  – Auditory protection for neonates

During this talk we were introduced to the auditory world of the premature baby, which is defined as infants born before 37 weeks in general although Amir presented data on children born at less than 32 weeks gestation. At this age the basic auditory hardware is in place, in fact scientists think babies begin to ‘hear’ at around 25 weeks. Between 26 and 32 weeks in the womb they build neural connections between ear and brain, making this a crucial time in the development of the auditory system.

So what happens to the little ones who are born in this period? Their tiny ears should be tuning to the soft sound of things like their mothers heartbeat and voice, muffled by their fluid surrounding, when instead they are exposed to the often loud and chaotic sounds of an intensive care unit. Amir suggests that this latter exposure, although well meaning and clearly aimed at keeping them alive, may lead to hearing difficulties, language problems, attention and social problems. So how does he plan to help?

He had a wonderful idea, after his wife gave birth of his own premature twins. It is based on Kangeroo Care by proxy. Obviously the babies cannot be held by carers all the time but you can influence the sounds around their crib to mimic the presence of their mother in particular. Amir recorded the mums singing, talking, breathing and vocalising, as well as the sound of their heartbeat. He then filtered the sounds so they appear as if from within the womb. He then developed micro audio systems so that the sound could be played safely in the little cribs. Although results are yet to be looked at in detail, an initial study of one pre-mature baby showed a reduction in emergency breathing episodes when exposed to the maternal sounds. Amazing work, I am sure you agree!

2)      Laurel Trainor  – EEG and MEG for musical experience, plasticity and maturation

Laurel presented a really nice summary of the plusses and minuses of both EEG and MEG when testing kids. These included keeping infants happy and still, and controlling for their often more exaggerated and frequent eye blinks.

 MEG is obviously worse off because of the strict no movement policy necessary in this type of scanning. Laurel suggested that new signal processing techniques (e.g. Artifact Blocking) are quite effective at reducing and/or eliminating these artifacts. Useful information if you are in the field I am sure.

She then went on to discuss how measuring developmental change in the brain can be challenging as the morphology of the waveforms measured by EEG and MEG changes with age. But still there are exciting discoveries to be made about how our musical brain develops if you are willing to take on these challenges. To demonstrate this she showed how the MMN response to guitar timbre can change after only 1 week of exposure when a child is 4 months of age.

3)      Sandra Trehub – Current behavioural methods with infants

Sandra began by underlining the importance of continuing to study behaviour in infants, especially while so many complex challenges remain with neuroscience methods (as Laurel outlined above). She argued quite convincingly that neural measures are often uninterpretable in the absence of behavioural measures.  

Behavioural measures provide an index of arousal and responsiveness in children so provide an ideal companion to neural studies, but should not be replaced by them.

She discussed a number of behavioural techniques and paradigms that she has been involved with during her career and outlined a number of their pros and cons. She began with conditioning, made most famous by the conditioned head turn procedure. This, she argued, remains a highly effective method for nonverbal participants but warned the audience that it can be very challenging! Preferential looking, a sister of the head turn procedure, is based on working out what attracts an infant’s attention. The problem with this paradigm lies with interpretation; researchers must not make the error of assuming that this paradigm actually reveals a preference (in the strict sense) as listening behaviour does not necessarily imply ‘liking’.

New perspectives on attention were introduced, which included an interesting distinction between ‘sustained attention’ and ‘attention termination’. The emphasis is on observing the infants other physiological reactions and bodily movements on top of their gaze, as gaze does not necessarily reveal focused attention – it could just as easily reflect mind wandering or day dreaming! She then presented some new data where she studied the features of mother infant singing. The idea was to test whether mothers sang differently to their children if they were not in their sight (i.e. behind a curtain). All the objective acoustic tests they tried revealed no effect of the curtain however, subjective ratings revealed a significant different with mothers songs rated as ‘more loving’ when the child was in the room. It just goes to show how there may be psychological effects of music that we don’t entirely appreciate with strict acoustical measurements.

At this point I had to make a swift exit from the hall in order to first, pick up my poster for the conference and second, to meet my best friend from school. We headed to a lovely restaurant called Kushti for one of the best curries I have ever had. Then early to bed, for the long conference day ahead!

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