A Fort Worth TCU lab just won a GRAMMY. Not a prize, but a scholarship—one that could help the lab explore links between musical training and brain enhancements that could help fight dyslexia.
This week the GRAMMY Museum received $200,000 in grants to 16 recipients in the United States to facilitate research and support archival and preservation programs. The museum donated $10,000 to the Centanni Lab at TCU, which focuses on the study of auditory perception with an emphasis on language, genetic influences in communication disorders, and neural plasticity in intervention. The grant is in addition to $310,000 in federal funding the lab has already received, as well as $8,500 from an organization in the United Arab Emirates.
Tracy Centanni, Ph.D., the TCU assistant professor who leads the lab, laughed when she was praised for being a “GRAMMY winner.” (She learned the award in an email, not with a statuette handed out on stage.)
But she is very serious about the study behind it and where it might lead.
“We’re interested in understanding all of the different biological and environmental factors that impact reading acquisition, and what’s going on in the brain during that process,” Centanni told Dallas Innovates.
“How does the brain perceive the different elements of music? And how does musical training increase or decrease these various brain responses? Centani said. “We’ve discovered in recent years that there may be some overlap here – a really interesting way to use our knowledge of music training to learn more about what’s going on in the brains of people with dyslexia.”
Lab uses EEG scans to test musical responses in young adults
The Centanni Lab uses a 256-channel EEG system (seen in the photo above) to measure the electrical signals a brain generates when a subject performs a task.
“Our brain makes predictions all the time about what’s going to happen next,” Dr. Centanni explained. “If you think about it in terms of language or reading, this is information that comes to the brain very quickly. So the brain tries to take a shortcut and make “predictions” about what it thinks will happen next, to kind of speed up the processing time.
People with dyslexia may have deficits in this ability, Centanni says.
“So in terms of musical tasks, we’ve shown that if you have musical training, it can improve your brain’s ability to make predictions, at least in a musical sense. And so if we find the same in people with dyslexia who have had a lot of musical training, that might provide support for more musical-type interventions in the future.
Tracking brain responses “millisecond to millisecond”
The 256 sensors in the above EEG “network” allow Centanni’s team to measure brain signals with “millisecond precision”.
In the study, EEG scans are administered to young adults with and without dyslexia, who have either extensive musical training or very minimal musical training.
“The idea is to determine whether musical experience in the form of formal training improves the brain’s ability to make predictions about what will happen next?” Centani said.
“For this particular project, we’ll be looking at the brain’s responses to individual notes in a melody. The ability to tell – millisecond to millisecond – what is happening in the brain’s response will allow us to compare what is happening when the person listens to individual notes, rather than having the activity averaged over a longer period of time, which that you get in other techniques like fMRI.
Those milliseconds can make all the difference to someone struggling with speech or reading comprehension. If their brain can improve their ability to predict what the next letters or sounds might be, it is possible that the individual can also improve their speech and reading. But that research and potential outcome is yet to come. For now, Centanni’s lab is exploring the basic science behind it all.
Stimulate the vagus nerve for a “memory” response
Centanni’s lab is also exploring how noninvasive stimulation of the vagus nerve can improve reading ability. The vagus nerve is best known for its role in the fight or flight response, such as when a cheetah suddenly attacks a zebra. The vagus nerve controls physiological responses to danger – faster heartbeat, faster breathing, etc.
“What it also does is create a lifelong emotional memory of that experience,” Centanni said.
Using a vagus nerve stimulation device like the “surface electrode” earpiece pictured above, the Centanni Lab is trying to harness this memory-creating ability to create memories for things that don’t put the life-threatening, such as learning to read or mastering a new language.
“If you wanted, for example, to improve motor function after a stroke, can we stimulate the vagus nerve and help improve some of those brain connections? It’s actually an approach that’s already been approved and that came out of my PhD lab work,” Centanni said.
“We have an article on reading comprehension that is currently being reviewed, so hopefully it will be published soon,” she added. “And then we have a project on language acquisition that we’re finishing data collection on this fall.”
‘Code Breakers’ study saw benefits
Another project Centanni is known for is her “Code Breakers” study, which was published in the journal Brain Stimulation in 2020.
“This project was actually our first study of vagus nerve stimulation in the lab here at TCU,” she said.
Young adults and students came to the lab for five different training sessions, learning to read Hebrew letters they had never been exposed to before.
“We tested them on three different measures of different levels of complexity to see, ‘Do you just learn the shapes, or do you actually learn to read using these letters? Do you create an automatic relationship between the letter and the sound that accompanies this letter?
“We were actually quite surprised to see the benefits of these more difficult tasks,” Centanni told us. “So stimulation seemed to help individuals automatically extract a letter or sound when prompted with a letter. And they were actually better at decoding new words created with those letters.
Within the next year, Centanni hopes to begin a follow-up study using a very similar protocol, extended to people with dyslexia and also adding EEG scans. By tracking what actually happens in the brain during the process, she hopes to find out which parts of the brain are strengthened by using this stimulation.
The lab is also known as the GAPP lab
The Centanni lab is also known as the GAPP lab, for the genetics of auditory perception and plasticity.
The lab uses a variety of models to study the biological mechanisms of communication disorders. To explore the genetic heterogeneity of language and reading, the laboratory uses rats as a model to study the link between certain genes and auditory perception and plasticity.
The lab then uses human participants to test these results and evaluates new methods of driving plasticity during language and reading interventions.
The objective: to “bridge the GAPP” between the basic science involved and the diagnosis and improvement of language and reading in humans.
A study on dyslexia in children will soon be published
Other Centanni Lab projects include a READ study on remote assessment of audiovisual skills in dyslexia. Conducted remotely during the pandemic, the study looked at auditory and visual processing in dyslexic children aged 7 to 12. Optional submissions of saliva samples were solicited to help the lab search for genetic correlates of reading skills.
“We are about to submit the first paper for this project, focusing on rhythm perception in young children with and without dyslexia,” Centanni said.
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