Many of us have just spent the Christmas season with a persistent and irritating ringing noise in our ears. But now that the relatives have gone home for the year, it’s worth remembering that a large proportion of the population suffers from a more persistent ringing sensation – tinnitus. It happens in the absence of noise, it’s one of the most common symptoms of hearing disorders, and it’s loud enough to affect the quality of life of around 1-3% of the population.
There have been many suggested treatments but none of them have become firmly established and most simply try to help people manage or cope with their symptom. Now, Hidehiko Okamoto from Westfalian Wilhelms University has developed a simple, cheap and enjoyable way of reducing the severity of the ringing sound. The treatment has showed some promise in early trials and even better, it is personally tailored to individual patients.
The method is simple. Find out the main frequency of the ringing sound that the patient hears – this becomes the target. Ask the patient to select their favourite piece of music and digitally cut out the frequencies one octave on either side of this target. Get the patient to listen to this “notched” piece of music every day. Lather, rinse and repeat for a year.
Okamoto tried this technique in a small double-blind trial of 23 people, eight of whom were randomly selected to receive the right treatment. Another eight listened to a piece of music that had a random set of frequencies cut out of it, while seven were just monitored. The treatment seemed to work. After a year, the treatment group felt that their ringing sensation was around 30% quieter, while the other two groups showed no improvements.
Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, is an internet superstar. He’s known for his penchant for grooving to music, notably Everybody by the Backstreet Boys. As the music plays, Snowball bobs his head and taps his feet in perfect time with it. If it speeds up or slows down, his rhythm does too. He is one of two parrots that are leading a dance dance revolution, by showing that the human behaviour of moving in time to music (even really, really bad music) is one that’s shared by other animals.
People who’ve attended parties at scientific events may question the ability of humans to move to a beat, but it’s a fairly universal skill and one that many people thought was unique to our species. After all, domesticated animals like dogs and cats don’t do it, and they spend their time with humans and have been exposed to our music for thousands of years. Other animals may produce periodic sounds or perform complex dances, but sensing and moving in time to complex rhythms is a different matter.
Snowball and his feathered friend Alex (the late, famous African grey parrot) could change all of that. Aniruddh Patel from San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute found evidence of Snowball’s excellent rhythm under laboratory conditions. Before Alex’s recent death, Adena Schachner from Harvard University (working with Alex’s keeper, the renowned parrot psychologist Irene Pepperberg) found that he could also match Snowball’s bopping.
Both groups of researchers believe that the parrots’ dancing skills depend on a talent for “vocal learning” – the ability to mimic the sounds of other individuals. To do this, animals need to have excellent coordination between their sense of hearing and their motor functions. Indeed, after searching YouTube for videos of dancing animals, Schachner only found evidence of moving to beats (a talent known as “entrainment”) among 15 species that practice vocal learning – 14 parrots and the Asian elephant.
We’re used to thinking of neglect as a lack of appropriate care, but to a neuroscientist, it has a very different meaning. “Spatial neglect” is a neurological condition caused by damage to one half of the brain (usually the right), where patients find it difficult to pay attention to one half of their visual space (usually the left).
This bias can affect their mental images too. If neglect patients are asked to draw clocks, many only include the numbers from 12 to 6, while some shunt all the numbers to the right side. When two famous neglect patients were asked to describe a familiar square in Milan, the city they grew up in, the landmarks they reported shifted depending on where they pictured themselves standing in the square. They would only report buildings to the right of their imagined position – swap the location and new buildings would suddenly come into mental view.
Patients tend to be particularly unaware of things on the left if other objects on the right are vying for their attention – this phenomenon, where only one of two simultaneously presented objects is seen, is called “visual extinction“.
Neglect is clearly a fascinating condition but also a debilitating and underappreciated one. It affects up to 60% of patients who suffer strokes on the right side of their brain, and it can hamper recovery and deny patients their independence. As such, there are plenty of researchers interested in finding ways of improving its symptoms. David Soto from Imperial College London is one of them, and he has discovered a deceptively simple way of helping neglect patients to regain their lost awareness – listen to their favourite music.
Soto was encouraged by a recent study, which found that stroke victims showed greater improvements in both memory and attention when they tuned into music than when they listened to audiobooks or worked in silence. And other studies have suggested that emotional faces are less likely to fall prey to visual extinction than less compelling images. But Soto wanted to see if the patient’s own emotional state had anything to do with their awareness. Would it be possible to reduce the symptoms of neglect simply by making patients feel happier through the medium of pleasant melodies?
Have you ever looked at a piano keyboard and wondered why the notes of an octave were divided up into seven white keys and five black ones? After all, the sounds that lie between one C and another form a continuous range of frequencies. And yet, throughout history and across different cultures, we have consistently divided them into these set of twelve semi-tones.
Now, Deborah Ross and colleagues from DukeUniversity have found the answer. These musical intervals actually reflect the sounds of our own speech, and are hidden in the vowels we use. Musical scales just sound right because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are primed to detect.
When you talk, your larynx produces sound waves which resonate through your throats. The rest of your vocal tract -your lips, tongue, mouth and more – act as a living, flexible organ pipe, that shifts in shape to change the characteristics of these waves.
What eventually escapes from our mouths is a combination of sound waves travelling at different frequencies, some louder than others. The loudest frequencies are called formants, and different vowels have different ‘formant signature’. Our brains use these to distinguish between different vowel sounds.
The songs of birds certainly sound beautiful to our ears but listen closely and you’ll hear a world of conflict and subterfuge. Take the Preuvian warbling antbird (Hypocnemis peruviana). Males and females live in pairs and they will defend their territories from other duos by singing beautifully coordinated duets.
Theirs is a most melodious partnership but throw another female into the mix and the harmony breaks down. The duet turns into an acoustic battle – the female tries to jam the song of her partner with her own, so that the notes of his amorous solo fail to reach the ears of the intruder. The male in turn adjusts his song to avoid his mate’s interference.
Joseph Tobias and Nathalie Sneddon uncovered this complicated sonic rivalry by recording 27 pairs of wild warbling antbirds in their natural environment in Peru. Males and females sing different tunes and their duets consist of a regular series of couplets – the male always leads and the female chimes in immediately after. These couplets require split-second timing. If she comes in any earlier, the female interferes with the male’s song.
But she often does. The quicker she responds to his song, the greater the interference, and the more likely the male is to take counter-measures. If he’s being sung over, the male abandons his current son and just begins a new one after the female finishes. In very rare situations, she jams him again, and the cycle continues.
Ants are among the most successful of living things. Their nests are well-defended fortresses, coordinated through complex communication systems involving touch and chemical signals. These strongholds are stocked with food and secure from the outside world, so they make a tempting prospect for any burglars that manage to break in.
One species of butterfly – the mountain alcon blue (Maculinea rebeli) – is just one such master felon. Somehow, it manipulates the workers into carrying it inside the nest, feeding it and caring for it. The caterpillar does so little for itself that it packs on 98% of its eventual adult weight in the company of ants. How does it do it?
Partly, the caterpillar secretes chemicals that imitate those found on ant larvae, and it mimics their actions too. But that can’t be the only explanation for ant workers will actually rescue alcon blue caterpillars over their colony’s genuine larvae. And if food is short, they will even kill their own young to feed the parasitic impostors. In the entire colony, only one individual is treated with as much respect as the caterpillars – the queen.
Now, Francesca Barbero from the University of Torino has found out how the alcon blues manage to get the royal treatment – they “sing” in the style of queens, producing uncanny cover versions using instruments built into their bodies.