© iStockphoto.com/Emrah Turudu

The Vision of Music: A physician who conducts music reflects on the healing powers of mingling the senses.

by Samuel Wong MD

When Edgar Degas could no longer see well enough to paint, he turned to sculpture, relying on a newfound tactile keenness. When French composer Gabriel Fauré’s hearing became deranged, he cried, “I only hear horrors.” Ludwig van Beethoven persisted in writing symphonies yet confided to his brothers, “I am deaf…how would it be possible to admit the deficiency of a sense I ought to possess to a more perfect degree than anybody else?”

A painter loses his eyesight; a composer loses his hearing. How might we treat and rehabilitate such patients? How can we take advantage of the healing mechanisms of neuroplasticity and sensory transfer to lift the spirit of a devastated artist? How might we harness the associative power of music and the visual arts to amplify one sense so as to replace the loss of another?

I have spent my professional life immersed in issues of sight through my work as an ophthalmologist and sound through my work as a symphony conductor. I have enjoyed inhabiting both of these worlds, so it is perhaps not too surprising that I would be captivated by thoughts of how their intersection might benefit others, particularly people who have lost the use of a sensory capacity that is vital to their creative expression.

My interest in exploring these possibilities has led me to probe the physiological aspects of synesthesia, a perception by one sense, such as vision, through stimulation of another sense, such as hearing. Could our understanding of how the brains of synesthetes—and nonsynesthetes—respond to sensory stimulations give us clues to therapies for those who’ve lost a perceptual window to their worlds?

Coda Blue

Synesthesia derives from the Greek terms syn, meaning together or with, and aesthesis, meaning sensation or perception. The scientific community became aware of this condition in the late 1880s when Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, wrote in Nature about individuals who saw colors when viewing letters of the alphabet or hearing music.

Synesthesia can find expression in several ways. In music-color synesthesia, individuals experience tones or sounds in response to colors or shapes. For those with ordinal-linguistic personification, ordered sequences, such as letters, numbers, days, or months bear distinctive personalities: Wednesdays, for example, might be perceived as an impish adolescent.

Spatial-sequence synesthetes can experience three-dimensional perceptions; months may appear near the ground. In the rarest form, lexical-gustatory, words cause taste sensations in the mouth—“echo,” for example, may always elicit the taste of buttered toast—while in the most common form, grapheme-color, thought to be experienced by 68 percent of synesthetes, letters or numbers have identifying colors.

Although the prevalence of synesthesia is imprecisely known, researchers estimate that, at minimum, it appears in one in twenty thousand but that certain types manifest in one of every two hundred people. It is a lifelong condition, possibly heritable, and is remarkably consistent: If the letter M is perceived to be purple, it will always be purple. This latter trait has been perhaps most famously expressed by Vladimir Nabokov. “In the green group,” he wrote, “there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t….In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h.”

Some musicians strongly associate sound with color. For the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the key of C major was white, while the key of B major was a gloomy steel blue. Franz Liszt exhorted an orchestra, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!”

Tone Poems

My interest in synesthesia and the brain led me to functional MRI. By showing neurons at work, it allows us to spy on artists’ brains and to watch their creative processes unfold. So, in an attempt to understand what parts of my brain engage when I listen to, read, think, or translate a piece of music, I submitted myself as a candidate for an experiment. While on a conducting assignment, I spent a week rehearsing an orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Between rehearsals I had my brain scanned while undertaking five different activities: listening to a recording of Beethoven’s music; thinking of the music but in silence, with my eyes closed; reading a score of Beethoven’s Fifth in silence; moving my fingers as if playing the symphony on the piano, again in silence; and thinking of the motions I would use when conducting this music.

The functional MRI revealed differences in the responses in my auditory and visual cortices, as I expected. But dramatic differences also appeared in the associative areas of my brain, in the V4 region, the temporoparietal-occipital junction, the corpus collosum, and the limbic system, regions whose interplay contribute to our perception of color. The experiment showed me how incredibly rich and varied the musical experience can be, a knowledge that gives me a greater understanding for the diversity that audience response can take. It also provided me a startling glimpse of the responses that synesthetes—whose perceptual pathways may be differently wired or, possibly, less disinhibited—can enjoy.

Our growing knowledge of functional brain anatomy will allow us to continue gathering clues about artists’ creative processes. In the same way, we can begin to capture the associative power of music and painting into art therapy. Some blind patients, for example, have found comfort in musical training, which has inducted them into a rich sonic world of subtle beauty. Visual patterns can be transformed into sound patterns for recognition and appreciation. Such synesthetic techniques can be helpful for patients with sensory loss.

Breaking The Sound Barrier

I often find comfort in late-night music. In Gustav Mahler’s work I hear the end of mankind, as did the late Lewis Thomas ’37, an observation recounted in his book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. But in Beethoven’s Ninth, I hear and see a fist-shaking, gravity-defying, deaf-be-not-proud maestro and the indomitable spirit of mankind.

My role as a conductor allows me to imagine the power offered by a synesthetic world. Sometimes, when I’m conducting an orchestra, I’ll close my eyes, and memories of past performances, a teacher’s lessons, landscapes, colors, and the faces of musicians all flash together. Then the images disappear as quickly as they came, as a musical note evaporates in thin air after it is made. Only its memory and aftertaste linger in the mind, sometimes for years or even a lifetime.

Moving from the concert theater to the operating theater, I am often struck by how the brinkmanship inherent in the work of conductors also exists in the work of surgeons. When a conductor closes his score and his eyes to conduct a searing performance of The Rite of Spring, he faithfully reproduces Igor Stravinsky’s carefully calculated arrhythmias. One misstep, one deviation of a few milliseconds, and the fine synchronization and ensemble are threatened. Drums may lose their entrainment and rhythms unravel.

During an eye operation, if a surgeon presses a few micrometers too deep, phaco tip may penetrate the posterior lens capsule, and lens fragments may fall back to the retina. Fortunately, such complications rarely occur in either the musical or surgical endeavors.

The accolades in both fields, when they occur, can be palpable. The applause in the clinic can be as resonant as that in a concert hall, though often quiet: The gratitude of patients shines through their eyes when, after cataract surgery, they relive the wonder of unimpeded vision.

It would give me great joy to be able to help artists regain critical sensory mechanisms they have lost, much as my surgery can help those encumbered by cataracts regain their view of the world. Our growing understanding of the neuromechanisms of sensory perception may make this possible one day. By learning how the brains of synesthetes process sensory stimulation and by comparing that information with that derived from experiments similar to my own, we may be able to rehabilitate those who—through stroke, aphasia, or other devastations to their neural landscapes—have lost the ability to make those connections.

To ensure that research and interest in “music medicine” grows, I have launched the Global Music Healing Institute, a foundation engaged in studying the effects of music on the autonomic system, on mood, and on speech and cognition. It is my hope that by stimulating research, public awareness, and interdisciplinary knowledge of the medical benefits of music, this organization will help build bridges that will allow patients—perhaps even a Degas or Fauré of today—reconnect with the perceptions and functions that help make their lives full.

Samuel Wong, Harvard ’88, has held music directorships in New York, Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Michigan. He has led the Royal Philharmonic on tour and recorded two award-winning discs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He now practices ophthalmology in New York.

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin.


No glue required: Broken polymer chains reform to repair a crack in this

material when it is pressed together and exposed to UV light.
Credit: Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Carnegie Mellon University

A polymer that mends itself could lead to medical implants or engine parts that fix themselves

MIT Technology Review, January 24, 2011, by Prachi Patel  —  A new polymer material that can repeatedly heal itself at room temperature when exposed to ultraviolet light presents the tantalizing possibility of products that can repair themselves when damaged. Possibilities include self-healing medical implants, cars, or even airplane parts.

The polymer, created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Kyushu University, heals when a crack in the material is pressed together and exposed to UV light. The same treatment can cause separate chunks of the material to fuse together to form one solid piece.

The researchers were able to cut the same block into pieces and put them back together at least five times. With further refinement, the material could mend itself many more times, says CMU chemistry professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, who led the research team.

Currently, the polymer can only repair itself in an oxygen-free environment, so the researchers had to carry out the UV treatment in the presence of pure nitrogen. But they hope to develop polymers that heal under visible light and don’t require nitrogen, which should open up many practical applications, including products and components that heal after suffering minor damage. Such a material, Matyjaszewski says, “would be a dramatic improvement over what we’ve already done.”

Self-healing materials have been made before, mainly polymers and composites. But most of those have relied on tiny capsules that are filled with a healing agent. When the polymer cracks, the capsules break open and release the healing agent, which becomes polymer solid and seals the crack and restores the material’s properties. But once the capsules are depleted, the material can no longer mend itself.

The new polymer relies on carbon-sulfur bonds within the material. “There are thousands of chemical bonds here, and even if you lose a small percent, one can think about potentially repeating the healing a hundred times,” Matyjaszewski says.

The researchers found that even shredded bits of the polymer will join together to form a continuous piece when irradiated with UV light. This implies that the material could also be easy to recycle. The researchers presented the details of their experiments in a paper published online in Angewandte Chemie.

Some research groups, including Matyjaszewski’s, have made polymers that heal when exposed to heat or certain chemicals. But Michael Kessler, a materials science and engineering professor at Iowa State University, says light healing is a superior option. “I think that UV stimulus is particularly appealing as an external stimulus because it’s noncontact, it happens at room temperature, it’s pretty easy to acquire and handle, and, importantly, it’s limited to target areas where the damage occurs,” Kessler says.

Kessler adds, however, that the new material suffers from two of the main drawbacks faced by other self-healing materials: it requires pressure, and the repair process takes hours.

Nonetheless, some self-healing materials are on their way to commercialization. Autonomic Materials in Champaign, Illinois, is readying corrosion- and scratch-resistant coatings containing microcapsules developed by Scott White, a professor at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

White’s colleague Nancy Sottos has made materials that mimic human skin and that heal themselves using underlying channels filled with healing agents. Sottos envisions the materials being used for structural applications such as airplane parts, car and spacecraft components, and for everyday products such as cell-phone and laptop cases.

UV-triggered healing won’t be suitable for all applications, says Sottos. That’s because the restructuring of carbon-sulfur bonds that allows the material to heal also requires that material to be rubbery and soft.

“You can make materials that are harder or softer,” says Matyjaszewski. “Every self-healing material is somehow unique and has advantages over the other ones. It depends on the properties and area of application.”

Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Credit: Wikimedia commons/KeresH

The-Scientist.com, Published 20th January 2011, by Vanessa Schipani

A form of contagious cancer found in dogs and wolves may steal its host’s mitochondria to replace its own failing organelles, possibly aiding its survival despite damage from high mutation rates.

The results, published in the January 21st issue of Science, may provide clues for hindering the spread of other similar cancers, such as a disease that threatens the endangered Tasmanian devil.

“This paper is an important step in advancing our understanding of the biology of this fascinating area of transmissible cancers,” said Matthew Breen, professor of genomics at North Carolina State University, who was not involved in the research.

Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT) is an atypical form of cancer that can be passed between dogs during mating. Normally found on the genitalia, the cancer cells are transferred from one individual to another on contact.

Though the high mutation rates typical of cancer likely allowed this tumor to evolve skin to skin transmission over time, in some cases it may also cause its mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to completely degenerate, said Clare Rebbeck, a former PhD student in Austin Burt’s lab at Imperial College London in the UK and first author on the paper. Without mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, the tumors cannot produce the energy needed to support basic cellular functions, such as metabolism and DNA replication and transcription, which eventually results in cell death.

But the cancer seems to have evolved an ingenious solution — steal the host mitochondria to do the job after its own mitochondria succumb to the damage. After conducting phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial and CTVT sequences from a wide geographic range of dogs and wolves, Rebbeck, now a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and her colleagues found that the nuclear DNA of the tumors was almost identical to one another, but their mtDNA was often more similar to the mtDNA of dogs than to other tumors, suggesting the cancer had adopted its hosts’ mitochondria on at least one occasion. To continue with this story, click on the hot link, below.

Continue reading: Cancer pilfers cell powerhouse – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57926/#ixzz1BgrnHhiB