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Interview with Michael Thaut


📷 RSI University of Toronto

Journalist: Allison Yan



Allison: Hi everyone! My name is Allison for SciSection on CFMU 93.3 and for this week’s Scientist of the Week, I’m here with Dr. Michael Thaut, Professor of Music, Neuroscience, and Rehabilitation Science at University of Toronto, one of the originators of Neurologic Music Therapy, and just a pioneer in the field of neuromusicology so thank you for coming to talk with us!


Dr. Thaut: You’re welcome, thanks for having me.


Allison: Ya of course! So just to get us started, I wanted to talk about your beginnings so to speak. I read that you started off as a musician having toured all over Europe, so what would you say was the best moment of that experience?


Dr. Thaut: Well actually my first academic degree was in Germany in psychology.


Allison: Oh ok!


Dr. Thaut: I was supposed to study music, but I sort of backed out; I thought psychology may be easier than music. Once I was working on my degree, I started playing basically professional at the same time, in parallel, so I knew that I would go back at some point in time and finish a music degree. But I did play in Europe professionally. I’m German, so that was my home


Allison: Wow that’s really cool! So before we dive into your research, music therapy is still a relatively new field especially when you add the neuroscience aspect, so for those unfamiliar, can you briefly describe what it is?


Dr. Thaut: Well, music therapy has been around in the US since 1950 and it’s been more of definitely soft science probably still is soft science. Operates more on well-being, social, emotional concepts. So I worked on my doctorate at Michigan State, I was a Fulbright student from Germany, and I was very encouraged by my mentors in music psychology and music therapy to think about ways how to advance the idea of music as therapy; not so much music in therapy but music as therapy. And so I began sort of a thought process looking at what in, sort of the language of music that I was trained in also as a musician, what are sort of elements, components that could be therapeutic, outside of this more global ‘when I listen to music it makes me feel good.’ And something more essential, more core. One of the things that came to me, relatively quickly I have to say, was this personal experience that music consists of a lot of physical training. In learning to become a good musician, there is a perceptual motor component to that in addition to all kinds of you know cognitive emotion, cognitive aesthetic. So there is a very strong perceptual motor component to it. And that allows us to actually create some pretty interesting, high-level movement experiences. I’m a violinist, so because coordination of movements that are very very different: the right hand does something completely different from the left hand does in some coordinated fashion with very rapid movements. Maybe easier even to visualize as the piano: play thousands of indiscrete finger movements in minutes, and you can actually remember those, memorize them. So I thought maybe we could translate that kind of perceptual motor mechanism that helps us to become high in performance, turn that around with other mechanisms built that also would work for somebody who has lost movement function, that needs to retrain and to relearn some of that stuff. And so that was really the idea. And so my cognate minor during my PhD in music was actually in movement science, and I had some excellent teachers over there at Michigan State. And they were very sympathetic to this idea to develop this relatively new idea of perceptual motor strategies in music learning, music training. So that’s actually where this all started. And we started working with mapping function movements on drums. The reaching and stretching and coordination would improve with this auditory feedback from the drums and the cues from the music. And then we condensed it in our really first big experiment to this idea of ‘What is one of the driving mechanisms in music?’ Which is rhythm, so that’s the timing. If you can't time your movements then you’re not going to be a musician. And timing is an essential component in all movement. Sport scientists know that very well. And so rhythm is a very peculiar type of timing because it’s sort of a predictable, cyclical timing process. So we basically decided we would, after many years of thinking and trying different experiments, we decided that we would do a rhythm perception study in stroke patients. So walking. In stroke patients it's the most consistent asymmetric thing you can think of. Because there's a weak leg and a strong leg. And so if you translate that into sound it would be like a consistent short-long, short-long move. And rhythm, metric rhythm is equal-equal, so that’s always the same. So if we ask a patient with a stroke, who walks in a short-long pattern, to a consistent let’s say, musical beat that is always the same temp, same beat. So let’s say it's always long-long, long-long, long-long versus short-long, short-long. So now you have the sensory system, which is the auditory beat and you have the motor system that says short-long, short-long, and the auditory system says long-long, long-long. So what's going to happen? So there's two ways. Well, we didn’t know really what would happen but either the sensory system, music changes the motor system or the motor system ignores the sensory system and says ‘I’m just going to walk short-long, short-long like the typical limp.’ So that was probably the experiment that we thought we had this all researched and this could really be a design, a studied design, that could open up the doors or it would close a lot of doors. And the results were very dramatic. There was almost an instantaneous adjustment of the people with stroke’s walk to actually become much more symmetric in their walk. And there are many videos showing that, many data and publications. We have published short of breakthrough studies in that, and we had a grant to work with Parkinson’s. Works the same way so there’s something universal in this kinda process. So to make this a bigger picture that was sort of the first time where I think we were able to identify a mechanism in music perception and music production that says that’s actually not emotional- it can be emotional of course because the patient likes to walk better- but the therapeutic effect was physiological. It was a brain effect. ‘There's a beautiful piece of music that I love, and I try to walk to that. And maybe it distracts a little bit from that I cannot really walk that well, but the music, the element, the rhythmic structure- something in the language in the syntax of music, the rhythm syntax- changed how the brain planned and implemented movement.’ So that was basically the big step into this whole idea of now let's look at other ways, other elements other structures in music. And so we have recently- well, that was 25 years ago, that was a long long time ago and this stuff that we researched was really not known. It was not known in occupational therapy. It was also not known in music therapy. So it was sort of a new kinda thing. An interdisciplinary connection. Neurorehab, brain rehab, and music perception, music cognition. And so we presented it at many many conferences, neuro conferences. World Congress of Neurology, etc., World Congress of Stroke. And the researchers on those meetings, they were actually, we thought would reject it and pushed out of not your typical neuroscience group, and we got actually the data were really well received. It worked, so the resistance was more in the area of music therapy that had very traditional ideas of how music therapy should be practiced. So they didn’t like the brain stuff. But there were a lot of music therapists, clinicians that were obviously interested in learning how to do this and a lot of medical directors and medical researchers said ‘How can we get people clinicians trained in that stuff?’ Because the traditional music therapist doesn't do that and the physical therapist and occupational therapist, they know the rehab part but they don't know the music part. So we’re in a bit of a dilemma. So we created what we call Neurologic Music Therapy. 20 standardized techniques that deal with cognitive rehab through music, language rehab through music, and movement motor control rehab through music. And that’s how that clinical branch became established. I don't teach therapists, I do research that is translational for the therapists. And we also have in these trainings, always people from other professions: music therapists, speech language pathologists, neurologists. And so that's how this whole thing evolved. It evolved with a change, I think maybe to summarize that, a change in...


Dr. Thaut: -a paradigm change in terms of how do we look at music?

Dr. Thaut: As sort of a more cultural phenomenon that has well being components and that kind of stuff.


Dr. Thaut: Or is there something in the language or in the syntax of music itself, in the structure, that can actually help rehabilitate the brain.

Allison: Wow! That’s really fascinating! So, you actually mentioned that you’ve done research with parkinsons, you were at conventions for stroke. So what are you and your research team currently working on?


Dr. Thaut: Currently, we just published a paper actually, on musical memory and dementia. So we sort of worked away from movement research, which we still do with music and a little bit of language not that much, and now we're doing lots of cognitive research. So the last paper we published - I think it's the last paper- a couple weeks or a month ago, we know that patients with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia: a lot of their musical memories are well preserved although the rest of their memory system is very, very affected, negative. So they don't remember the name of their spouse sometimes or they don't remember what they did 10 minutes ago but they can sing lyrics of a song that they have known for over 30 years. So that is relatively well documented in the sort of clinical literature but we are not aware of a whole lot of studies that have looked at the mechanisms for that. I mean there are some studies out there. And so we decided that we would investigate that in this two step study. One is to look at what happens in the brain when these people listen to music that they have known for 20, 30 years. What is the network in the brain that emerges? Compared to listening to music that they have only known for one hour so like short memory. Is there something in that network or structure in the brain that gives us some ideas why musical memories seem to be spared? Therapeutically, we thought that would be a useful study because when people with dementia remember music it’s usually associated with some autobiographical stuff. So like ‘Oh, where did I hear that? Ya that was ... Or that is the song I met my spouse or we used to dance to that song!’ So it usually comes with some kind of memory package that’s outside of music. So music sort of comes with a scaffold that carries some of this stuff and that’s suddenly been preserved. And so we thought if we could find or pin down some brain mechanisms, maybe this could be really used in a more focused way to restore, mabe momentarily restore, some higher recognition orientation to the world, to their environment, and maybe also slow down the decline, which unfortunately we can't reverse in Alzheimer’s. So we found, in the first step, we found that there is a huge network distributed across the whole brain when we listen to old music. So it's not just the auditory system. There is the motor system, there is cognitive regions, prefrontal regions. So there is a huge area that is suddenly triggered to become sort of alive in the brain that is usually not very active anymore. And some of these areas that are part of that big network are actually not really affected by the disease. So there is a survival component, a sparing component in that network. Compared to this other network that is one hour memory- so that’s very small. So that’s one of the things that we have. Another second part of the study that we're wrapping up right now- we’ll submit that very soon- where we had people listen to music for three or four weeks for one hour a day. We had a playlist for them, and it was sort of focused listening, engaging in conversations with spouse, family, and there were changes in the brain after this four week listening program. And there were also changes on some neuropsychological tests so they improved on the memory score, which is pretty unusual because unfortunately patients with this kind of illness don't really do that. There’s a lot of things we are working on. We are also looking at Parkinson’s. We don't really do clinical research anymore because we know they can walk better. They can move better. We have published so many papers. We are looking also at mechanisms. So we actually have, at the University of Toronto, we have very specialized neuroimaging center where we can actually image neurotransmitters. So we’re not imaging regions of the brain like FMRI, where you look at several parts of the brain. We’re looking actually at neurotransmitters of the brain. Very different kind of imaging. So we’re looking at dopamine- that's the culprit so to speak. The reduction, the depreciation of dopamine in the brain of someone with Parkinson's disease creates all these movement issues. And since they move better with music and rhythmic cues, we like to find out is there an effect of music and rhythm on the dopamine system. So that's sort of the key system. So we're imaging neurotransmitter release in the brain. So that's very fascinating, and we have a lot of studies. We're working with cochlear implants- retraining auditory and speech perception. We finished a study of stroke patients practicing their motor coordination in their weak arms playing musical instruments, percussion instruments obviously not the violin, percussion. We're preparing some work with autism. So there's a lot of things we do. And I've been with the University of Toronto for 4 years now, 4.5 years.


Allison: Well we're actually running out of time now, but really quickly before I finish off, do you have any piece of advice for somebody who's trying to get into the same field as you?


Dr. Thaut: So that's always a very difficult question. But, since you have to weave together different strands of training and expertise, there's not one program that says here is the neuroscience of music program. We have a PhD here in music neuroscience but it's in music. It's also interdisciplinary, so if you come, if you have musician training, psychology training, neuroscience training. Just get started somewhere. Go to a neuroscience program, and [if] you are a musician, maybe you get double major. It's more of increasing integration of different strands of knowledge and expertise. So it'll take a few years if you're interested in that, but it can be done. I mean there are places in the world that actually have music neuroscience research centers. We are probably the most clinical, translational research oriented center in the world but there are other ones. Just up the road here in Montreal is a great music neuroscience research center, Brams. But it's distributed, and you can probably find much more openness to this idea than when I started working on this 30 years ago. So you'll find in university, you may find someone in neuroscience, someone in psychology, or someone in music theory or music psychology that’s interested. But as said we have a Master’s and we have a PhD in Music and Health Science here, and so that's definitely a place you can look at.


Allison: Well thank you so much Dr. Thaut for taking the time and telling us all about it. It's been really interesting! It’s been a pleasure talking to you!


Dr. Thaut: Thanks! Nice talking to you too.


Allison: And for our listeners, thanks for listening! Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for the latest SciSection interviews!


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