Scientists from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and 23andMe discover a genetic link to people’s ability to move to a musical beat | Journalist VUMC

by Emily Stembridge

Moving through time to musical rhythm is so automatic that people are often unaware of the exquisite coordination it requires of our brains, minds and bodies.

“Tapping, clapping and dancing in sync with the rhythm – the pulse – of music is central to our human musicality,” said Reyna Gordon, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head Surgery and neck and co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab.

Thanks to a new study by researchers at the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute in collaboration with 23andMe, a personal genomics and biotechnology company, Gordon and his colleagues have made an important discovery about the biological underpinnings of musical rhythm.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human behavior, is the first large-scale, genome-wide association study of a musical trait. Gordon and Lea Davis, PhD, associate professor of medicine, both co-lead authors of the findings, along with Maria Niarchou, PhD, research professor in the Department of Medicine and first author of the paper, co-led a team of international collaborators in new groundwork to understand the biology underlying the relationship between musicality and other health traits.

This study identified 69 genetic variants associated with rhythm synchronization – the ability to move in sync with the beat of music. Many variants are found in or near genes involved in neuronal function and early brain development. “Rhythm isn’t just influenced by a single gene — it’s influenced by several hundred genes,” Gordon said.

Additionally, the study found that beat synchronization shares some of the same genetic architecture involved in biological rhythms such as walking, breathing, and circadian patterns.

These new findings shed light on the contribution of biology to something as culturally unique and complex as musicality and highlight the links between rhythm and health. Importantly, the researchers noted that genetics explains only part of the variability in rhythmic skills and that environment certainly plays an important role as well. Investigating the complexity of these possible genetic influences on musical traits is now only possible with a very large number of people participating in this research.

In this case, the study used data from more than 600,000 research participants. From this data, the researchers were able to identify genetic alleles that vary in association with participants’ beat synchronization ability. 23andMe’s large research dataset with millions of individuals who have consented to participate has provided a unique opportunity for researchers to capture even small genetic signals, said David Hinds, PhD, research scientist and statistical geneticist at 23andMe.

These new findings represent a leap forward in scientific understanding of the links between genomics and musicality.

“The processing of musical rhythms has intriguing links to other aspects of cognition, including speech processing, and plays a key role in the positive effect of music on certain neurological disorders, including walking. in Parkinson’s disease,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts. University, an expert not involved in the study.

“Using such a large dataset allows researchers to find new insights into the biology and evolutionary underpinnings of musicality. While recent years have seen a growth in neuroscientific and developmental work on the treatment of beats, the current study takes the biological study of beat processing to a new level,” Patel added.

This work was supported in part by the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award #DP2HD098859. Visit the study’s FAQ to learn more.

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