Music, Mind and Society program growing fast

Young child playing piano

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has designated the Program for Music, Mind and Society at Vanderbilt as a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab for its focus on the arts, health and socioemotional well-being in families of children with and without autism spectrum disorder.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) is one of only four entities in the country that received the designation, which comes with a $150,000 award. The NEA’s designation is just the latest accolade for the program, which, though only in its third year, has gained more than $800,000 in new grants for research and national and international attention from NPR, the BBC, and a visit last year from renowned opera singer Renée Fleming.

VUMC will conduct two studies, in partnership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Opera, and Borderless Arts Tennessee, the state organization on the arts and disability.

“With the arts community in Nashville, it’s really the perfect combination,” said Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., assistant professor of Otolaryngology, director of the Music Cognition Lab in the Department of Otolaryngology, and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member. “There are so many people who are interested in this field and who also may have a connection to health care or education, including direct connections to Vanderbilt. These circumstances are bolstering our efforts with the community and indicate great potential for future growth.”

Studying social and emotional effects of music

The first of the two NEA studies is a randomized waitlist control trial to assess the social and emotional effects of music on children with autism and their parents. The lab also will conduct a national survey of music engagement by families of children with and without autism and other developmental disabilities.

In addition to the research, the lab will host quarterly Music Research Forums to promote the development and refinement of the lab studies and to develop a Music Engagement Toolkit and online training modules to build capacity for arts organizations and musicians who work with children with developmental disabilities.

Reyna Gordan and Miriam Lense

Reyna Gordon, PhD, left, and Miriam Lense, PhD, are researchers in the Music, Mind and Society program at Vanderbilt. (Photo by John Russell)

Miriam Lense, Ph.D., research instructor in Otolaryngology and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member, is principal investigator of the NEA studies. Lense is recruiting toddlers, about 2 to 4 years of age, and their families to come weekly to a small-group music class that includes children with and without autism.

“The program uses parent training, peer interaction and musical play to promote social engagement and positive behavior,” Lense said. “Families build a musical toolbox of strategies to practice these skills and to engage with their kids and with the other families while also having a lot of fun doing music together.”

Infant-directed speech and singing

Lense has received a $474,000 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to focus on infant-directed speech and singing — how children respond to the ways parents sing or talk to them.

In particular, the study will consider infants who are at a higher risk of developing autism because they have an older sibling with it.

Lense is recruiting 70 infants between 9 and 12 months of age. The children in the study will play games and watch movies of people singing and speaking, and researchers will track where they are looking.

“This is a way of looking for early signs or early social interaction patterns, and then we follow the children over time so that we can track their development,” Lense said.

Rhythm, grammar, and language disorders

Gordon’s prior research illuminated the connection between rhythm and grammar — that a child’s ability to distinguish musical rhythm is related to his or her capacity for understanding grammar. The connection opens up research possibilities to use music and rhythm to study children with language disorders.

The new grants grew from work funded in part by a Trans-Institutional Programs, or TIPs, grant through Vanderbilt University, which focuses specifically on interdisciplinary efforts. Additional resources were provided by the Department of Otolaryngology, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, and the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. Gordon’s TIPs work with Nancy Cox, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, has led Gordon to extend this work on rhythm and grammar to the genetics domain with a new $236,000 NIH K18 Career Development Award, also from the NIDCD. Cox holds the Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Chair and is a professor of Medicine.

Program for Music, Mind and Society

The Program for Music, Mind and Society at Vanderbilt was created in 2015 with Vanderbilt TIPs funding, and encompasses five schools or colleges at Vanderbilt — the School of Medicine, Peabody College, the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering, and the Blair School of Music.

The Program serves as a centralized infrastructure for collaborations among researchers in the different schools who share a mission to advance knowledge on the biological underpinnings and societal implications of music.

Scientists know that music inspires people, changes their mood, and affects their behavior. The program is allowing researchers to delve deeper into the science behind these observations, including behavioral studies and neuroimaging, bringing together multiple disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, medicine, education and music performance. The program has created networking opportunities, educational initiatives, and new public outreach and community partnerships to facilitate these aims.

“These approaches where we’re bridging the basic and translational science align very well with the new NIH Sound Health Initiative’s call to expand knowledge of how music cognition involves brain circuitry that could be harnessed for health and wellness applications,” Gordon said.

More information about the Sound Health Initiative can be found here and here.

“Music represents a fundamental way that humans connect and communicate,” said Ron Eavey, M.D., Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

“We are fortunate to be able to study the neuroscience of how music influences us all. We are in the world’s ideal environment — our exciting research academic center in the Music City. The NIH has noticed this connection, and at Vanderbilt we have accomplished much in a short time toward becoming a preeminent center to study music, communication, and behavior.”

Caption: Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., left, and Miriam Lense, Ph.D., are researchers in the Music, Mind and Society program at Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center members. (photo by John Russell)

Matt Batcheldor is an information officer in Vanderbilt University Medical Center News & Communications. This article was first published in VUMC Reporter, May 17, 2018.

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