Simone Dalla Bella
What if tapping a cell phone screen to the rhythm of music could improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s disease?
This is the bold idea of Simone Dalla Bella, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal and co-director of the International Laboratory for Research on the Brain, Music and Sound.
The professor is interested in the cognitive and neural mechanisms that determine musical perception and performance. In a recent study, he demonstrated, with his doctoral student Frédéric Puyjarinet, that rhythmic training improves the motor skills of patients with Parkinson’s disease, in particular the fluidity of walking and speaking.
“Considered to be the most common movement disorder, Parkinson’s disease is often associated with dysfunctions in gait and balance, but also in rhythmic skills, the ability to perceive the beat in music and beat that measurement with the hand or the foot, explains the researcher. The idea is therefore to train these deficient rhythmic capacities to generally improve motor skills.
The brain at work in all its complexity
So how can a simple finger tap to a musical rhythm affect walking or speaking?
“By performing this very simple task, we engage a set of so-called deep brain regions, such as the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, which interact with regions of the cerebral cortex involved in controlling movement, continues Simone Dalla Bella. In several studies, these regions have been found to activate when listening to very rhythmic music, even if the person is not moving at all. This suggests that as the brain processes rhythm in the auditory environment, it activates motor regions in parallel. Therefore, if you train rhythmic ability, you may see benefits to other motor skills beyond what you are initially training.”
This is a transfer effect, says the researcher. It facilitates the cerebral plasticity of the regions of the brain dedicated to rhythm, but since it is a central neural system, other motor channels are also improved.
“After rhythmic training, the patients’ speech was more regular, even though this function was not trained at all,” he adds.
The game as a versatile and accessible tool
To achieve these results, Simone Dalla Bella and her team designed a mobile application, a “serious game” in which the user must tap the screen to the rhythm of music to construct a building. The more the finger movement is aligned with the beat of the music, the faster and more adequately the building is constructed.
Named Rhythm Workers, the application was first designed in the context of telerehabilitation for patients with Parkinson’s disease. However, the research team, formed by doctoral students Hugo Laflamme and Kevin Jamey, is currently evaluating its effectiveness and relevance in children with neurodevelopmental disorders (autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, etc).
The hypothesis tested is therefore the same: by stimulating the central rhythmic system, several regions of the brain are indirectly engaged, which are particularly linked to motor processing and to certain cognitive functions such as attention, flexibility in the execution of tasks and the ability to inhibit (the ability to switch from one task to another).
This intervention technique therefore has the potential to be used at home to support brain function and improve the well-being of a large pool of people, in addition to being fun, non-pharmacological and inexpensive.