Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Expert listening to music alters gene transcription...So?

I can't resist comment on a piece generated by PsyBlog, "Classical Music's Surprising Effect on Genes Vital to Memory and Learning." ..."How 20 minutes of Mozart affects the expression of genes vital to learning, memory and more…" that points to work of Järvelä​ and collaborators, whose abstract states:
To verify whether listening to classical music has any effect on human transcriptome, we performed genome-wide transcriptional profiling from the peripheral blood of participants after listening to classical music (n = 48), and after a control study without music exposure (n = 15). As musical experience is known to influence the responses to music, we compared the transcriptional responses of musically experienced and inexperienced participants separately with those of the controls. Comparisons were made based on two subphenotypes of musical experience: musical aptitude and music education. In musically experienced participants, we observed the differential expression of 45 genes (27 up- and 18 down-regulated) and 97 genes (75 up- and 22 down-regulated) respectively based on subphenotype comparisons...
Apart from issues of control and sample sizes, there is the problem that almost distinctive behavior (athletic engagement, meditation, whatever, can be shown to alter genes transcription. Presenting a trained (versus a naive) person with stimuli in the trained area of expertise would be expected to alter the “transcriptome” to support the brain processing required for that expertise, regardless of what the area is (music, visual art, literature, athletics). We're a long way from being able to make much sense of or interpret the statements that conclude the abstract:
...the up-regulated genes are primarily known to be involved in the secretion and transport of dopamine, neuron projection, protein sumoylation, long-term potentiation and dephosphorylation. Down-regulated genes are known to be involved in ATP synthase-coupled proton transport, cytolysis, and positive regulation of caspase, peptidase and endopeptidase activities. One of the most up-regulated genes, alpha-synuclein (SNCA), is located in the best linkage region of musical aptitude on chromosome 4q22.1 and is regulated by GATA2, which is known to be associated with musical aptitude. Several genes reported to regulate song perception and production in songbirds displayed altered activities, suggesting a possible evolutionary conservation of sound perception between species. We observed no significant findings in musically inexperienced participants.
To be sure, primitive first steps such as these are useful, but it is unfortunate when their popularization by blogs vying for attention proceeds to overinterpretation and hyperbole.

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