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Biology and the Beat

Posted by on Thursday, September 13, 2018 in Features, Homepage Highlights, Summer 2018 .

Researcher Miriam Lense, PhD, works with Liam Bazemore in the SeRenade program for a study about music and cognition. Photo by John Russell.

Kate Margulis has been passionate about music all her life. But it wasn’t until she came to Vanderbilt to earn a master’s degree in speech and language pathology that she realized she could marry that passion to her undergraduate research in developmental psychology and language and, as a result, help children learn language skills.

Margulis spent two years as a lab coordinator at the Temple University Infant & Child Lab where she worked on projects studying interrelations among language, play and spatial skills before coming to Vanderbilt where she was introduced to Reyna Gordon, PhD, the lead author of a 2014 study that found an intriguing connection between rhythm and grammar in children.

Through a series of tests conducted with colleagues at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Gordon, assistant professor of Otolaryngology and Psychology and director of the Music Cognition Lab in the Department of Otolaryngology, found that children who did well on music tests tended to also excel in their spoken language abilities. The research could have multiple uses, such as taking rhythm into account when evaluating communication skills in children with developmental language disorders.

“I care a lot about preserving music as part of public education and as something that is accessible to all children, and I think research is an important part of making sure it stays in children’s lives,” Margulis said. “My goal is to better understand the way music can help people, and the way music can boost the skills children are developing. I want the rest of the world to value music and to prioritize it as a valuable part of education, and I think that to do that we all need to understand its effect better.”

Vanderbilt students are making an impact in this fast-developing field of research. Just three years after securing $200,000 in foundational Trans-Institutional Program (TIPs) funding from Vanderbilt University, the Music Cognition Lab is branching out from that initial research and pushing into two new areas — the genetics of music and language and the possibilities of deploying music to improve social engagement of children, including those with autism. These new projects have been fundamentally defined by interdisciplinary collaboration and have also given Vanderbilt students the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking research.

Additional resources were provided by the Department of Otolaryngology, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy.



Together with other students and faculty, Margulis developed an algorithm to identify cases of language disorder in de-identified medical records using both Vanderbilt’s Synthetic Derivative, a database containing clinical information derived from Vanderbilt’s electronic medical record, and linked data in BioVU, Vanderbilt’s bank of de-identified DNA samples.

The algorithm is one step toward advancing understanding of why and how language abilities vary in the population, complementing other work pursued by the group on the genetics of music skills. Taken together, these studies could answer fundamental questions about the communication abilities of the human mind. And it all starts with genetics.

“We can use genetics to understand the underlying biology better,” said Nancy Cox, PhD, Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Professor of Medicine and director of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute. “That makes it possible to consider new ways of developing treatments for conditions and diseases.”

Musical rhythm and speech have patterns that could be harnessed to bolster communication for individuals with language disorders. The hope of the research is to discover whether there are certain genes that may trigger language impairment and whether those genes are also involved in rhythm, explained Stephen Camarata, PhD, professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Then those genetic markers could be tested in prospective studies with patients with language difficulties to better understand their shared impact on development and disabilities.

From there, precision-medicine approaches could be developed, Gordon said. Researchers could apply new knowledge about the biology of rhythm and language to better identify language impairment in children and provide a new tool for individualizing language treatment.

The research exemplifies Vanderbilt’s proud history of interdisciplinary collaborations. “It’s very exciting,” Camarata said. “You have this unique collection of very talented researchers in different areas of expertise viewing these domains from an innovative perspective.”

Cox said linking genetic data to the electronic medical records — nearly 250,000 samples — offers the opportunity for a much larger sample size than traditional studies that recruit patients. The database is already being used for multiple other studies.

“Applying these methods and resources in a unique way is emblematic of Vanderbilt’s leadership in this research area,” Gordon said. “We are thus enhancing not only the work here, but the progress of the field through collaborative work with our national and global research partners.”

“In the original TIPs, genetics wasn’t a focus,” added Miriam Lense, PhD, research instructor in Otolaryngology. “It was a really amazing opportunity to link up, collaborate and bring students in to train them in what’s really cutting-edge, breakthrough research.”



The Music Cognition Lab is also making a push into autism research in two separate studies, in partnership with the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Opera, and Borderless Arts Tennessee, the state organization on the arts and disability. The studies gained the program recognition as one of four 2018 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Research Labs, which comes with a $150,000 award.

“We are looking at really broad factors of how we can use music and study music to impact social engagement, emotional well-being and community inclusion for individuals both with and without autism and other developmental disabilities,” said Lense, who is the principal investigator in the studies. “We are bringing together people with different areas of expertise to bring new perspectives to the field of music cognition.”

The studies will involve faculty from different specialties across campus. Mark Wallace, PhD, dean of the Graduate School at Vanderbilt University and Louise B. McGavock Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences, is lending his expertise in sensory processing. Elisabeth Dykens, PhD, the Annette Schaffer Eskind Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Pediatrics and co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center University Center of Excellence on Developmental Disabilities, lends expertise in psychopathology and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially those with genetic syndromes.

The first NEA study involves parents and preschoolers with and without autism. Standardized assessments track different types of social communication behaviors, and eye tracking and movement analyses are used to determine how children engage with people doing different types of musical activities. They may watch videos of music classes, or children playing or parents singing.

Parents and children also make music together in the SeRenade (Social and Rhythmic Engagement for Autism Spectrum Disorder) Program. SeRenade, designed by Lense and recent graduate Sara Beck, PhD’18, is a 12-week series of parent/child music classes, where parents learn techniques and strategies for supporting their child’s social engagement and positive behavior. “It’s a really unique training environment for the students and a really unique setting for families, even compared to commercial music programs, because those don’t necessarily include the sort of parent training and inclusive elements that our class does,” Lense said.

The second NEA study is a national questionnaire study to assess music engagement, social development and emotional well-being in children and their families with and without developmental, medical and mental health conditions. Findings from the research will inform the development of community engagement and therapeutic practices related to musical activities.

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

(l-r) Reyna Gordon, PhD, Katherine Margulis, Miriam Lense, PhD, and Chloe Vaughan Photo by Joe Howell.

Lense has also 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. The study includes infants who are at a higher risk of developing autism because they have an older sibling with it. Researchers use techniques such as eye-tracking and acoustic analyses to quantify interactions. “We’re looking at how parents and infants interact and how parents speak and sing to their infants to socially engage with them and how their infants respond,” Lense said.

Student involvement has also been a key part of the music and social engagement work. Rita Pfeiffer, who graduated with a master’s degree in speech language pathology last year, continues to participate in the parent/child classes in addition to working as a speech-language pathologist for Williamson County Schools. She has also contributed to prolific publications that have come from the Music Cognition Lab, publishing an article on social motor coordination during adult-child interactions in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The publication was an offshoot from her master’s thesis examining the feasibility of measuring the timing of movements during social interactions of preschoolers interacting with adults.

“Specifically, we want to examine how children and their parents move during social interactions, how their movements may differ between musical versus non-musical social play, and whether we might see differences in movements for children with neurodiverse profiles (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder),” she said. “I cannot express enough how rewarding this project has been to know that we have been able to benefit the community and families from our research, and that I could contribute to the endeavor of making Nashville a more inclusive, and musical, city.”

Pfeiffer, Margulis and other student trainees in the lab have also performed in the annual Scientific Salon event, showcasing their musical talents and research progress.

Ron Eavey, MD, Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, hailed the progress of the program that the Department of Otolaryngology enabled.

“Otolaryngology is a specialty that focuses on the organs of communication,” he said, “Music is one form of communication. We are thrilled to see that Reyna and Miriam are being recognized for their work and for the significant influence that music has on everyone’s lives.”