“If one can hear music, one can hear anything,” said Charles J. Limb, MD, an auditory surgeon specializing in cochlear implantation and associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. His research melds two passions of music and medicine in looking at what happens in the brains of musicians that may hold answers to ways to treat people with hearing loss.
“Since music is the pinnacle of sound, understanding exactly how it is processed and perceived has enormous implications for how we understand complex auditory perception more broadly and also what it means to have hearing impairment,” he said.
Dr. Limb is combining two lines of research that he hopes someday will help deaf people not only hear again, but hear music again. One line of research is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at neural mechanisms that underlie spontaneous, improvisational creativity in jazz musicians, and the other is looking at how deaf people who receive cochlear implants perceive music.
Results of the first line of inquiry were recently published in in PLOS ONE. The study looked at the neurobiology of interactive musical communication by using fMRI to scan the brains of jazz musicians engaged in “trading fours,” a technique in which jazz musicians spontaneously trade improvised material in four measure segments. The study found that musical discourse (the exchange between musicians engaged in trading fours) engages language areas of the brain showing an overlap between music and language processing. However, the study also found evidence suggesting a fundamental difference between the way in which meaning is conveyed in language and music based on the findings that the areas of the brain involved in semantic processing for language are not involved in spontaneous musical exchange.
Along with this research, Dr. Limb is looking at why music perception, e.g., pitch and timbre perception, is so poor in people who have cochlear implants. His hope is that “somebody who is deaf can regain their hearing and one day hope to hear something as strikingly beautiful, and difficult, as music.”