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We have singing neurons in our brain

Researchers from the United States have discovered neurons in the brain that respond only to… a song.

In 2015, these researchers also made a discovery. Using fMRI scans, they found a group of neurons that respond to music. They succeeded by having the test subjects listen to 165 different sounds such as talking, eavesdropping, dogs barking, and thus music as well. By intelligently analyzing data from those scans, they tracked six groups of neurons, each with a different response pattern. For example, one of these groups had a special pattern in responding to speech and another group had a special pattern in responding to music. But they weren’t satisfied with that yet.

In this new study, they hoped to collect better and more accurate data using a different technique. This time the electrical activity inside the skull was measured. Now that sounds pretty intense, but these investigations often happen to people who already have these electrons in their skull for another treatment. For example, when determining where a patient’s seizures have occurred before surgery, these measurements are often made a few days before surgery. Of course, these people first give permission to participate in other studies, but you can imagine that there are many studies in which this method of studying brain activity is very interesting. In this case, the researchers were allowed to take measurements on 15 people over several years.

They used the same list of 165 votes as in the previous study. Well, of course, the location of the electrodes was determined by the surgeon who did epilepsy research. So not everyone was in the right place to see the reactions to the votes. But many do. They again applied advanced analysis to the data and this time, to their own surprise, they saw something completely new: a subset of neurons that only respond to singing. What they did next in the study was use a computer model to analyze the results. Merging 2015 with what they found now. They did so because such an fMRI scan could map a much larger part of the brain. Less detailed but much more space. This helps if you want to determine the exact location of that group of neurons. Combining this data in this way had never been done in this way before and it wasn’t easy, but they did.

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Of course, this episode about singing can’t do without a bit of music from the recently deceased Mark Lanigan.

Read more about the research here: Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified a group of neurons in the human brain that respond to singing but not other types of music† The paper can be found here: A song-selective neural assembly in the human auditory cortex

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