Motor skills and memory from the fingers to the brain

Memory is a strange and precious thing. Our ability to recall what has been said, done or seen is key to our understanding of the world around us and makes up a large chunk of who we are as human beings.

A recent study by McGill University cognitive neuroscientists used music to shed some new light on the way learning styles influence how the brain encodes and uses information.

The study was the brainchild of PhD candidate Brian Mathias and Dr. Caroline Palmer, along with collaborators Barbara Tillman and Fabian Perrin at the University of Lyon in France and was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. It was funded by the European Erasmus Mundus Cognitive Neuroscience exchange program which allowed Mathias to travel to Lyon and work with 3 different labs for the project, Palmer says.

Palmer says the idea that people learn in different ways was  their primary inspiration for the study . Using music as the vehicle, the researchers were able to study how the brain encodes and releases information depending on the way in which a person is exposed to a piece of music for the first time.

“We were very interested in how those experiences shape their ability to recognize music,” – Caroline Palmer

The researchers asked 20 experienced pianists to learn simple melodies by either hearing them several times or by playing them several times on a piano. The melodies were short sequences that were composed specifically for the study to make sure the pianists had not been exposed to them before. The subjects were then asked to listen to the melodies they had heard, some of which contained wrong notes, and identify the discrepancies they could recognize, while their brain electric signals were measured using EEG.

Participant playing original melody while brain waves are being measured by EEG

The results showed that the pianists were better at recognizing pitch changes in the melodies they had performed rather than just heard. The EEG results also showed an increase in brain activity when the melodies were replayed for the pianists who had performed the melody rather than listened to it. Mathias says they observed the increased brain activity about 200 milliseconds after participants heard the wrong note in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor area, which are both located in the frontal lobe. These areas are involved in planning and controlling body movements, Mathias says.

“This shows for the first time that the brain’s motor network contributes to enhanced memory for music that listeners have performed previously, compared to music they have only heard,” Mathias says.

The motor system and memory

Improved memory for sounds that have been produced using one’s own motor system is known as the “production effect” on memory, Mathias says.  Scientists have debated whether the “production effect” is due to a role of motor experience in memory recognition or simply to increased familiarity with auditory experience, he says.

Mathias says their paper builds on prior behavioral work looking into the types of errors people make when performing music. By focusing on the errors people heard rather than performed it provides new evidence to suggest that motor experience has a significant impact on memory recognition at the behavioral as well as neural level.

The results from the EEG also show that people that have learned by listening are encoding and remembering the music differently than people that have learned by moving their bodies, Palmer says.

This is an example of a melody familiar to most people (“Happy Birthday”) that contains an altered pitch. Study participants were asked to identify wrong notes in melodies that they had learned by performance or listening only. The altered pitches that were used sounded similar to the altered pitch in the audio file. 
Practical and clinical applications

Both Palmer and Mathias say they believe their findings also have some very practical applications. Mathias says their paper helps to understand “experiential learning,”  and offers some pedagogical and clinical applications.

“The role of the motor system in recognizing music, and perhaps also language, could inform education theory by providing strategies for memory enhancement for students and teachers,”- Brian Mathias

He also says that future research could show whether auditory-motor learning contributes to the protection of memory in aging populations and people with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s dementia.

Palmer says she believes that it would be helpful for people suffering from memory loss to know  that memory can be encoded within two different neuro-circuits at the same time. With their findings it may be possible to find out if the cognitive impairment is affecting one or both circuits and use this information to make sure that new memories are encoded in the unaffected part of the brain.

Dr. Weihong Song is the Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease and a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Colombia. As someone who was not involved in the study he says he agrees with the researchers when it comes to the possible applications of the findings for prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s. He says that any study involving memory and the brain is interesting to those who study and treat Alzheimer’s because it is inherently a memory-loss disease. At its most basic, Alzheimer’s is caused by random cell death in areas of the brain that are central to memory.

“The big challenge right now is that when someone is diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s we don’t know how to stop the random cell death,” he says.

Even though he does admit that this study is not directly related to Alzheimer’s, Song says studies like this help in finding ways to help preserve pre-stored memories and slow down the process.

Song says the study is also interesting because it gives researchers more information about how the brain works in general.

“It shows that it’s not just the sensory part of the brain that’s involved in memory recognition and storage but it’s the motor part as well,” he says.“The combination of the neurons in both the sensory and motor part of the brain will greater enhance memory and storage.”

This means that when trying to learn or remember something doing something physical, like picking up car keys rather than simply saying where they are, will help the brain encode the information in two places rather than one, improving your chances of remembering where you put them later, Song says.

Song says he would love to see another study looking at an older population or even those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

What’s next?

Palmer, Mathias and their colleagues at the University of Lyon will be expanding on their research. However, they are choosing to stick closely to their focus on music, the brain and memory by looking at different aspects of music that make it more memorable.

“We hope this research will help us further understand the roles of auditory and motor neural networks in error detection, and how these systems work together during skilled performance,” Palmer says.

Produced by Eric Murphy and Jasmine Williams 

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