When Tracy Centanni was an undergraduate student at Penn State University, she took on her first neuroscience project under the tutelage of two established professors, not knowing that years later she would collaborate with the same mentors — this time as the lead investigator.
The group is starting a new project that combines two of Centanni’s favorite subjects — reading and music — with the help of $10,000 in funding from the GRAMMY Museum Grant Program.
“My introduction into neuroscience was helping conduct a similar study, using one of the tasks in our current project, working with Drs. Wenger and Halpern. I fell in love with the idea of using music to study the brain,” she said. “So this grant is a nice full circle kind of project, working with the same collaborators on a project similar to the one that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place.”
Today, Centanni has a Ph.D. in cognition and works as an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University and leads a lab that is trying to understand how the brain learns to read and the impact of genetic and environmental factors on that ability.
“We know that there are some overlapping neural networks that support both music and language. And we’ve seen in kids that if you give them rhythm training, music training, it does seem to help with reading,” she said. “This study is really trying to get at the mechanism for why that might work. Why might musical training help with reading and dyslexia?”
The grant money will fund research that tests prediction abilities with a set of music-related tasks.
“I usually describe the brain as a prediction machine. We’re always trying to think about what’s about to happen next so that we can prepare,” she said.
Many tasks that are taken for granted, such as walking, require some elements of prediction. As a person moves forward with the left foot, the brain will think about moving the right foot next, Centanni said.
The same is true for skills like reading and playing or listening to music.
Many people with dyslexia struggle to predict which words come next, whereas typical readers are better at predicting and are able to read more efficiently.
However, Centanni notes that many, but not all, people with dyslexia might have prediction deficits.
“The goal of this study is to look at the neural mechanisms of what’s happening in the brain in those who have extensive musical training compared to those that don’t, and then in those with dyslexia compared to typical readers,” Centanni explained.
To that end, the researchers are looking to enroll 100 young adults, between the ages of 18-35 in the study. They are looking for 50 typical readers and 50 who have been diagnosed with dyslexia. Within both groups of 50, they are also looking for about half to be considered experienced musicians, with nine or more years of training, and the other half to be nonmusicians, or those who have two or fewer years of training.
Interested in this topic? Here are other studies that look at reading and music intervention:
Sousa, J., Martins, M., Torres, N., Castro, S. L., & Silva, S. (2022). Rhythm but not melody processing helps reading via phonological awareness and phonological memory. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 1-11.
Ozernov‐Palchik, O., & Patel, A. D. (2018). Musical rhythm and reading development: does beat processing matter?. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), 166-175.
Cancer, A., Stievano, G., Pace, G., Colombo, A., & Antonietti, A. (2019). Cognitive Processes Underlying Reading Improvement during a Rhythm-Based Intervention. A Small-Scale Investigation of Italian Children with Dyslexia. Children, 6(8), 91.
After introductory tests to understand participants’ baseline reading ability and confirm they fit the study’s criteria, the participants will be given two music tasks. One will involve rhythm and asks participants to determine if a given note makes sense within the rest of the pattern. The other is called a mode task.
“It’s basically telling major keys or happy-sounding melodies apart from minor keys, which tend to be more sad, morose kinds of melodies,” Centanni said. “There’s a key note within the melody that tells you whether you’re in a major key or a minor key, and so we’re going to look at the neural response to that particular note.”
For the researchers to look at the brain’s prediction abilities during the experiment, participants will wear a net-like cap of electrodes that sits on top of the head but doesn’t probe into it.
The team will measure the electrical brain activity under those electrodes while participants complete the tasks. This technique is called electroencephalography, or EEG.
Michael Wenger is one of the collaborators on this project. He has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and directs the OU Visual Neuroscience Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.
“So EEG is the result of large populations of neurons usually acting in concert to process some aspects of an external stimulus,” he explained. “Even when you can’t pick up differences in behavior … the brain will pick up the differences in expectations easily, and sometimes (it) offers a more sensitive measure of ongoing processing than is capable of behavior alone.”
Just as the EEG is processing information in real time, so are human brains when they perceive language or music.
“What’s great about EEG is that it allows us to see what’s happening millisecond to millisecond. So we have really great precision in terms of timing,” Centanni said. “So when you’re thinking about rhythms and music, those are elements that come at you relatively quickly. And so having that millisecond precision allows us to see exactly what those changes are and compare across the groups.”
Andrea Halpern, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is co-chair of the psychology department at Bucknell University, is also a collaborator on the project. Music and language are matched in many ways, she said.
“They each have elements that by themselves are not that meaningful … Each syllable by itself doesn’t mean much, but when you put it together, it’s a word and then a phrase,” she said. “And that’s similar to music.”
Although researchers are learning more about brain functions all of the time, there is still a lot that is unknown, including when it comes to reading.
Halpern noted that early humans did not need to read to survive, but over time they co-opted other systems in the brain to perform that function.
“We had to retool the language system … We had to take advantage of our motor systems, our visual system, our auditory system, our eye movements,” she said. “When we evolved, we were just looking at visual scenes and faces perhaps, but not text or music notation for that matter, which evolved fairly recently as well. So we have to co-opt those systems for modern cultural developments.”
Advancing our understanding of dyslexia or music perception can help give researchers more information on how the brain functions across systems. But the researchers involved are careful not to overstate the scope of the study.
“Because we’re doing this study in young adults, it’s really difficult for us to know whether the individuals that are trained musicians that have dyslexia, did they become musicians because they never had a prediction problem and that allowed them to be effective musicians? Or did the musical training help them compensate for a prediction deficit?” Centanni explained.
While the study’s design and outcomes are limited in scope, the data it gleans can still move the ball forward.
“What our data might let us do is at least help us figure out if there is a global prediction issue in dyslexia or at least in some of those individuals,” Centanni said. “And then in the future we can do some work with younger kids where we might be able to get more at that causal relationship.”
Music education is personal for Centanni. She grew up performing in several musical ensembles, from choir and concert band to the drum and bugle corps, and she credits those experiences for helping her to get to where she is today.
“In those groups, every member of the ensemble matters and has an important job to do in the context of the performance, but everyone has to contribute together,” she said. “I also learned the discipline and hard work it takes to be a dependable part of that team. That discipline and hard work translated into my doctoral training and my career and has really created the foundation for my work ethic and the drive to contribute something beautiful — in this case, science that has an impact.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.