Epileptic brains process music differently, perhaps even more "deeply," than non-epileptic brains, according to research being presented today at the American Psychological Association's 123rd Annual Convention in Toronto. Specifically, the brainwave activity of epileptic brains appears to synchronize with musical inputs to a higher degree than the brainwaves of non-epileptic brains. It's intriguing, generally, but the observation also lends new evidence to the idea of using music as a treatment for a serious and not easily managed neurological disorder affecting some 65 million people worldwide.
Epilepsy is itself a collection of different disorders all unified via the presence of seizures, and, as such, it doesn't always arise from the same region of the brain nor does it come as the result of the same cause. About 80 percent of epileptic seizures, however, originate in the temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that accepts sensory input and coverts it into meaningful thought, e.g. language comprehension, emotional resonance. This happens to be where the primary auditory cortex lives, which is where sounds are converted from data into perception, awareness, and feeling.
So, it makes sense that there may be an important sound-seizure relationship at work. The research team behind the current findings, led by Ohio State University neurologist Christine Charyton, tested this idea using 21 patients from the university's epilepsy monitoring unit with some help from Mozart and John Coltrane.
"We recorded EEG in people with and without epilepsy at rest and while listening to music," Charyton and her group wrote in a presentation summary. "We used bispectrum analysis in conjunction with Fourier analysis to determine the degree and distribution of synchronization. We found significantly higher levels of synchronization and spectral EEG activation when listening to music in the frontal cortex and temporal cortex, especially in persons with epilepsy. We speculate that music may be useful to enhance electrical activity specific to the frontal and temporal cortices."
In other words, music may prove to be a viable treatment for what can often be a debilitating illness. In a separate statement, Charyton cautions that music probably won't replace current therapies—medication and-or surgery, mostly—but could serve as a beneficial adjunct to them. That said, there is still much work to be done. The current findings were actually unexpected.
"We were surprised by the findings," Charyton says. "We hypothesized that music would be processed in the brain differently than silence. We did not know if this would be the same or different for people with epilepsy."
It's worth dipping briefly into the deeper neuroscience of this. The cerebral cortex is arranged into long columns of cells, which serve to amplify brain activity and this makes it so that we can observe it using EEG in the first place. When these columns synchronize abnormally, the result can be a huge wave of electrical depolarization and, then, a barrage of neural impulses or spikes. It's sort of like a power surge, and the result can be a seizure. So, if it's possible to control synchronization with musical stimuli, then it may be possible to control these cortical power surges.
To be clear, the relationship between epilepsy and music has been well-studied and even has a name, the "Mozart effect." The first hint came in 1993, with research demonstrating better spatial reasoning skills in subjects that had listened to a certain Mozart sonata. In 1998, Taiwanese neuroscientists found decreased epileptic activity in subjects that had listened to the piece, while a pair of 2011 studies added more still more support to the idea.
The advance here seems to be demonstrating that music increases columnar synchronization more in epileptic patients than otherwise, which would seem to make sense as these patients would be already over-synchronized. It is at least an interesting insight into the ground floor operations of seizure formation in a frustrating and still very mysterious disorder.