In a nutshell: Listening to high-tempo music can impair learning, but electrical brain stimulation reverses the effects.

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We often listen to music while doing something else – like studying, exercising or driving – and might even feel like it’s improving our performance. But background music can also be a distraction, and can make it harder to focus by negatively affecting our mood.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – a non-invasive method for electrically stimulating the brain – can be used to manipulate emotional state. However, little was known about how music or tDCS – or the two together – influence behaviour.

Brain Function CoE associate investigator Farshad Mansouri and PhD scholar Daniel Fehring and their colleagues at Monash University decided to test the effects of music and tDCS on response inhibition – a brain process that enables us to suppress actions that are unnecessary or inappropriate. Many daily activities, such as resisting the urge to answer your phone while you’re driving, require response inhibition.

Participants in the study were randomly presented with two tasks: a ‘go’ task, which required them to carry out an action, and a ‘stop’ task, which required them to inhibit a planned or initiated action. They performed the tasks before and after tDCS and while listening to high-tempo, low-tempo or no background music.

Without any music or tDCS, practicing the stop task made the participants better at inhibiting their responses. By contrast, it resulted in participants taking longer to respond to the go task, possibly because the anticipation of a potential stop signal made them more cautious. Low-tempo or no music had little effect on these practice-related changes, but high-tempo music blocked the learning effects achieved through practice. However, tDCS reversed the effects of high-tempo music on learning, reinstating the improvement in response inhibition. It did not have the same effect when combined with low-tempo or no music.

Although the researchers have yet to pinpoint the brain mechanisms that are responsible for the interaction between high-tempo music and tDCS, their results show that listening to high-tempo music might adversely affect learning and performance in some cognitive tasks. Their findings also show promise for developing a safe and non-invasive method for rehabilitation in people who struggle to inhibit their responses.

Next steps:
The team will continue to examine the brain processes underlying the effects of music and brain stimulation in controlling certain brain functions.

Mansouri, F. A., Acevedo, N., Illipparampil, R., Fehring, D. J., Fitzgerald, P. B., & Jaberzadeh, S. (2017). Interactive effects of music and prefrontal cortex stimulation in modulating response inhibition. Scientific Reports, 7, 18096. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-18119-x

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