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Are you musical or tone deaf? Genes may be key

Updated: March 12, 2014 09:13 AM
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By Mary Brophy Marcus
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, March 12, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Inheriting certain inner-ear genes may make for top-notch musical chops.

A study by Finnish scientists suggests that the genes that influence the structure of auditory pathways -- the structures that form the inner ear -- may play a significant role in musical ability.

"It's very interesting that they identified genetic regions that may be associated with brain mechanisms involved in the abilities to perceive, appreciate and perhaps even perform music," said Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But "there is a lot of intervening, messy biology between these genetic differences and the ultimate traits that fascinate us all, and are associated with musical genius," added Bilder, who is also chief of medical psychology-neuropsychology at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

The aim of the study was to identify variations in genes linked with sensory perception, said authors Irma Jarvela and colleagues at the University of Helsinki. They analyzed the genomes of 76 families for a total of 767 people between the ages of 7 and 94 years old (41 percent male). Fifteen of the families were selected for the study because they included professional musicians.

In addition to genetic testing, the participants were asked to take three musical aptitude tests that measured a person's ability to perceive perfect pitch, for example.

The researchers reported that the "best-linked and associated regions of the genome were largely on chromosome 4, and are mostly genes associated with the auditory pathway," according to a journal news release.

The auditory pathway includes the cochlea. Sounds are recognized by cochlear cells in the inner ear and transmitted as electronic signals through the auditory nerve to the brain. MRI studies show that numerous areas of the brain are active during music perception.

The study findings were published online March 11 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Bilder, who was not involved in the study, said other factors are involved in extraordinary creativity, including a high musical aptitude.

"In this study, they've really focused on auditory perception, and I think the ability to appreciate tone and rhythm and musical patterns is critically important. But there are so many other factors involved in exceptional levels of ability and achievement -- a range of personality factors and other cognitive factors that are almost certainly critical," Bilder said.

He says they're called "Big C" factors, such as personality characteristics like openness to new experiences. "People who have higher levels of creative achievement tend to have lower levels of agreeableness. They tend to be people who don't just accept the status quo," he said. Persistence, the desire to work and work until they get it right, is another quality of highly creative personalities.

Another expert pointed out other influences on musical ability.

"There are a lot of environmental factors that may come into play, too," said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, in Great Neck, N.Y., such as being exposed to music as a child, or playing an instrument from an early age.

Borenstein said other genes are involved, too. "Musical ability isn't based on one gene like eye color. It isn't blue or brown. It's a complex set of genes of which they studied a few associated with musical aptitude."

UCLA's Bilder said, "The way to appreciate this study is to see this as one piece in a very complicated puzzle." He believes further research focused on exceptional creativity may help confirm and extend these findings.

More information

UCLA's Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity has more on the science behind creativity.

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