News blog

Updates from Europe PMC, a global database of life sciences literature

Europe PMC team

 | 9 April 2014


Beat box: How the brain processes rhythm

Image Source: Serial/Trash
People have little trouble
recognising and following the beat in a piece of music. We can even continue to
play the beat in our minds once a song has finished. However, despite the ease
with which we carry out such a task, the brain activity which underpins it
remains a topic of investigation.
the beat – why does it matter?
We’re all familiar with
the niggling irritation of a song that’s stuck in our heads. However, few of us
are aware that our knack for holding a beat in our thoughts actually makes life
easier. The capacity to identify patterns in streams of sound supports many
forms of human behaviour, including moving, speaking and listening. 
If the ability to generate
this internal rhythm is disrupted, such as in Parkinson’s disease, problems
begin to arise. People with Parkinson’s disease have difficulty with
psychological tasks, such as holding a beat in their minds, as well as with
practical tasks, such as walking. The more we know about the regions of the
brain that are causing these difficulties, the more effective we will be in
designing treatments to combat them. Previous research suggests that a set of
brain structures known as the basal ganglia are involved in identifying and
following a beat.
are the basal ganglia?
The basal ganglia are a
network of brain regions that are involved in movement and action. Many of the regions
within the basal ganglia appear to play a role in the processing of rhythm. One
such region is the putamen, a round structure near the centre of the brain.
Studies measuring levels of brain activity have found that the putamen is
active when a person is listening to a beat. However, it is not clear whether
the putamen is merely identifying the presence of the beat, or whether it is
actually helping us to recreate that beat in our minds.
can we tell what the putamen is doing?
Jessica Grahn and James Rowe
designed a study which allowed them to distinguish between these two
possibilities. They began their work by creating small snippets of sound. Some
of the sound-bites contained a beat, while others did not. These ‘non beat’
sound-bites involved sounds which were not arranged in any rhythmic order. The
researchers then combined the order of the sound-bites to create different sequences.
These sequences fell into one of four key groups: (1) no beat, (sequences with
no beat present), (2) new beat, (sequences in which participants heard a non
beat followed by a beat), (3) beat continuation, (sequences with two versions
of the same beat), and
(4) beat adjustment,
(sequences where the original beat got faster or slower).
The researchers asked the
participants to listen to the different sequences whilst a scanner measured how
their brain responded. In order to measure this brain activity, they used
functional magnetic resonance imaging, often know as fMRI. This is a form of
brain imaging that allows us to see which regions of the brain are involved in
which tasks. It does this by measuring the amount of oxygen that a specific
brain region is using relative to other regions. If a region is using a lot of oxygen,
it suggests that the region is ‘active’, that is, it’s involved in carrying out
the task.
Image Source: Shutterstock Copyright: GrandeDuc
did the researchers find?
They found that the
putamen responded differently to different beat sequences. When there was no
beat, the putamen wasn’t active. Similarly, when participants heard a new beat,
the putamen didn’t respond. By contrast, when participants heard the same beat
twice, the putamen was highly active. It was also active, but to a lesser
extent, when the sequence involved the same beat played at different speeds.
These results suggest that
the putamen was not responding to the presence of a beat per se, but was processing
the continuation of the beat across the sequence. This supports the theory that
the putamen is involved in our ability to recreate a beat in our minds.
is this important?
Prior to this study,
researchers knew that the putamen was related to beat processing, but they
didn’t know what its specific role was. This study showed that the putamen is
important for the mental generation of a beat.
In addition to advancing
our knowledge of the putamen’s role in beat processing, these findings have
notable clinical implications. People with Parkinson’s disease are capable of
identifying a beat in a piece of music, but have difficulty when it comes to
reproducing the beat in their own minds. The research shows that this pattern
of symptoms could be caused by damage to the putamen. Consequently, it
highlights the necessity of focusing on the putamen as a target for future
treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

This summary by Elizabeth Kirkham was shortlisted for Access to Understanding 2014 and was awarded first place. It describes research published in the following article, selected for inclusion in the competition by the Medical Research Council:

PMCID: PMC3593578
J.A. Grahn & J.B. Rowe.
Cerebral Cortex (2013) 23(4), 913-921.

Access to Understanding entrants are asked to write a plain English summary of a research article. For Access to Understanding 2014 there were 10 articles to choose from, selected by the Europe PMC fundersThe articles are all available from Europe PMC, are free to read and download, and were supported by one or more of the Europe PMC funders.

Look out here and on Twitter @EuropePMC_news for further competition news and other Europe PMC announcements.   

Post a comment

I agree to the limited use of my personal data as described in the Europe PMC advanced user services privacy policy.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Subscribe to the Europe PMC News blog to receive the latest updates

This website requires cookies, and the limited processing of your personal data in order to function. By using the site you are agreeing to this as outlined in our privacy notice and cookie policy.

Partnerships & funding

Europe PMC is a service of the Europe PMC Funders' Group, in partnership with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI); and in cooperation with the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NCBI/NLM) . It includes content provided to the PubMed Central (NLM/PMC) archive by participating publishers.