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NeuroConcert in Barcelona: ‘The soundtrack of our life: Music, Emotions, and Memory’

What is the link between music and neuroscience?

Think about the multiple roles music plays in our lives: as kids, we use music to learn multiplication; as teenagers we identify ourselves and our peers with the music we listen to; when we go shopping for this or that item, we remember the song associated with the ads on TV; we can’t help but moving our head or tapping our finger, taking the rhythm, when a tune is playing.

We have ‘special powers’ when it comes to music: just listening to a few notes we can infer the entire song. Also, our memories are associated with music: the ‘first kiss’ song; the song we used to play over and over, crying for our first break-up; the tunes of our party nights in the first memorable holiday without parents; the first song at our wedding…

Such apparently trivial circumstances open up a series of intriguing questions for neuroscientists: Why did we develop such an ear for music? What is the evolutionary advance? How can we guess a song by listening just to the first notes?  How does our memory work with music? Are we sad ‘because’ we listened to sad songs, or ‘as’ we are sad, we choose to listen to sad songs? How are our feelings, emotions, memories formed and enhanced with music?

These questions and more topics will be explored during the  NeuroConcerts, one of the projects (together  with NeuroCinema and NeuroConcurs)   organised by the University of Barcelona to promote scientific  outreach.

‘The soundtrack of our life: music, emotions and memory’ (‘Banda sonora original: música, emoció i memòria’ ) was the first of the NeuroConcerts and took  place at the Amphitheatre of the  University of Barcelona on Thursday April 4th.

The suggestive music played by Manel Camp (piano); Horacio Fumero (contrabass) and Matthew Simon (trumpet) helped Professor Perfecto Herrera, Dr Judith Dominguez Borras, and  Dr Joaquim Rabaseda  exploring some of the connections between music, emotion and memory.

‘ Do you remember the first CD you bought? Do you remember 5 songs or musical pieces that represent the soundtrack of your life?’- We were asked.

If you try it for yourself, most likely you’ll find that you do remember the first CD you bought, as it’s such an important event in your life. Also, if you are below 35 years old, most likely you listed songs related to a ten years -period between 15 and 25 yo. According to Prof Herrera, this happens because music is strictly associated to the creation of the ‘self’, and therefore, memorable songs are linked to important moments in the years of our growth.

Particularly interesting was Dr Judith Dominguez Borras’ presentation on the physiological bases of music appreciation in the brain. Music is perceived as movement of air molecules, vibrations running through the auditory channel to the tympanic membrane. This vibration proceeds to the auditory ossicles (the malleus, the incus and the stapes) and the cochlea, where the nerve fibres make contact. At this point, the mechanic impulse is transformed into an electric impulse that through the 8th cranial nerve reaches the brain. In the brain, the sound is processed in the auditory cortex.

Here you can see an extract of a short video Dr Dominguez Borras showed us on how the brain reacts to music. Note the blue area lighting up in the sections on the left hand side: this is the auditory cortex.

Dr Dominguez Borras pointed out some of the other  brain areas that are active when we listen to music. For example the ‘amigdala’, which is involved in processing of emotion; the ‘hippocampus’, the memory center of the brain;and the ‘nucleus accumbens’, a center responsible for addiction but also for  pleasure and reword.  The involvement of these  brain areas when we process music gives a ‘scientific explanation’ to what we instinctively know: that music is indeed linked to emotion, memories and pleasure.

Listening to good music (for free) and discuss basic neuroscience behind our music experience is a winner.

If you are interested in the experience, check out the following events and book your ticket in advance here.


El cerebro lector :La unión de dos códigos, literario y neuronal, bajo la perspectiva psicolingüística


El cerebro lector, primera sesión del itinerario literario 2013 organizado por el CCCB (Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona) y la red de Bibliotecas de Barcelona, se celebró el pasado viernes 22 de marzo en al anfiteatro anatómico de la Real Academia de Medicina de Catalunya, donde Cajal ejerció su cátedra de histología de 1887 a 1892. Una vez más, la sala Gimbernat acogía en su seno a dos especialistas del sistema nervioso, las doctorandas Joanna Sierpowska y Diana López-Barroso, que guiaron a la audiencia a través de una charla interactiva sobre los mecanismos cerebrales para el procesamiento de la palabra escrita. … Continue Reading

Noelia Martínez Molina Estudiante predoctoral en la Universidad de Barcelona Brain Cognition and Plasticity Group

Neuro-unconference 2013 in Barcelona

What are the future treatments available for diseases of the nervous system? What can the general public do to help scientists understanding the brain? How is an experiment done in the lab and what does it mean? Can we improve our brain’s performances? Will we be able to speak another language just thanks to a microchip implanted in our brain? (My hope was high on this one… but, unfortunately, the answer is ‘not in the near future’).

These were some of the curiosities discussed in the very first Neuro-unconference at the Convent de Sant Agustí in Barcelona on March 20th 2013, with a panel of scientists including Mara Dierssen, Mavi Sanchez-Vives, Ramon Trullas, Diego Regolar Ripol, and Elena Muñoz Marrón.

This unconference was ‘a first’, an experiment in itself.

We knew there was going to be a keynote speech on a topic chosen by the public on line; a Speakers’ corner, with young scientist standing up to share some interesting ideas; and the explanation of a proper experiment. But nobody knew how exactly the evening was going to be shaped, not even the organiser, Mara Dierssen.

Mara’s point was that interaction with lay public can help scientists in their job, so purposely this unconference didn’t have a path set in stones.

The people’s choice

On the CRG website, people could vote beforehand for the topic they’d like to know more about.

First, Mavi Sanchez took us through the different topics proposed: among things like cyborg, artificial intelligence, use or recreational drugs, implication of neuroscience on ethical issues, the majority of the people voted to know more about the feature of treatments for neurological diseases.

It seems like we are all freaking out.

Ramon Trullas, a pessimist by admission, pointed out a few factors responsible for the current lack of powerful treatments for neurological diseases:

1) Neuroscience is still a new discipline: there is a lot we don’t know

2) Just few neurological illnesses are genetic. Understanding the human genome didn’t allow a big progress for neuroscience as for other disciplines

3)  Diseases are generally studied according to the formula one organ= one disease. The brain is more complicated than that, its work is not just a function of its anatomy, but also of integration of signals.

4) Major pharma companies, scared by all of the above, have been cutting down on investments in CNS drugs.

However, not all treatments have to come from drugs.

Diego Regolar Ripol and Elena Muñoz Marrón described a relatively new technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS.

This technique is based on the principles of electromagnetic induction: a very powerful magnetic field, positioned closed to a conductor generates an electric impulse.

In TMS, a plastic-enclosed coil of wire is positioned in a specific point on the head. When the coil is activated, it generates an electromagnetic field that passes through skin and skull and, at the brain levels, changes the neuronal activity of the treated areas. At the moment, the field doesn’t have deep penetration, so TMS can be used to study just the more superficial layers of the brain (the cortex). However, scientists all around the world are trying to boost this technique, to be able to study even deeper brain layers involved in neurological disorders.

Repetitive applications cause long term effects, making TMS a powerful new tool for the treatment of neurological conditions like depression, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, post-traumatic disorder, chronic pain and anxiety.

Maybe the future is not so bleak, after all.

The Speaker corner

This was really entertaining: 7 young neuro-enthusiastic – scientists and not- shared with us some of their ideas, in less than five minutes each. We discussed language (Julia Monte); the ability of learning new things even when we are no more kids (Jesus Antonio Bas), similarity between the brain and an electric circuit (Belen Sancristobal); neuroarchitecture, a cross talk between neuroscience and architecture that can help shaping buildings in a way better suited to their functions (Fernanda Matas and Ruth Costa); what is ‘conscience’ (Mark Quevado), and the risks of recreational drugs (Mireia Ventura).


Kudos to these young speakers who had the hard job of standing up in front of a crowd and translate science lingo for the public!

The Experiment

Ever thought about being a scientist for a day? Mara Dierssen’s lab set up a mock experiment on the CRG website and asked people to give it a go. The person that gave the best answers will go in the actual lab and do the experiment for real.

Marta Fructuoso and Jose Antonio Espinosa explained the different steps of the experiment.

The question was:

Can a difference in ‘Protein x’ effect the ability of mice to learn?

There are two groups of mice, one is a ‘control’, the other has something different in regard to the ‘Protein x’. (In real life it can mean that the mice doesn’t have the protein x, has a slightly different protein x, has less of it, has more… but for this purpose we don’t need to spell it out).

To study mice’s learning ability, Marta and Jose set up a water maze test. This is a standard behavioral test we use in the lab to assess learning abilities over time: The scientists put the mouse in a maze with water; on the borders of the maze there are visual clues, allowing the mouse to orient himself. Underneath the water there is a platform, invisible to the animal: mice don’t love swimming, so they will look for a place where to rest. At first, it would take the mouse some time to find the platform, swimming around to explore the surrounding. The procedure is repeated over time ( day 1, day 2 and so on) and the scientists assess if the mouse has learned where the platform is by measuring the distance it swims before finding the platform. If the mouse has been learning, it will take progressively less swimming around to find the platform.


As a scientist, it was interesting to see what non-scientists see in our experiments and charts, and how they interpret the data. I’m not going to give you the answer: The experiment is still up here. Try it for yourself and I’m sure the scientists in Mara Dierssen’s lab would be delighted to discuss your doubts.

The scientist’s take

I loved the unconference format. I’m used to formal, never-ending meetings…  sometimes boring.

The relaxed environment of the unconference allowed people to converse freely, with exchanges, no barriers between experts and public. And although I am a scientist, I learnt something new: for example, I learned more about TMS, and also that people want to help and collaborate even if they are not scientist. As Mara Dierssen and Mavi Sanchez said, there are lots of ways of doing that: to volunteer for studies, but also to donate organs for research. On the other hand, the curiosity, the support and the interaction with people in itself is helpful for scientists, and someone with a different point of view, not so ingrained in the problem, could really help us analysing things in different ways and come up with different solutions.

The public’s take

I sat next to a lovely lady who turns out to be an airplane pilot. She was so kind to talk with me about the unconference. Guess what? She loved it too, and she wasn’t ‘familiar’ with all these ‘brain stuff’. Not only she enjoyed the relaxed format, she learned something new, which I think is one of the main point for a meeting like this

I wish more conference were un-conference.

Big thanks to the organiser, the speakers, the people in the public, and the one who followed the unconference on streaming for their contribution.

Neurounconference pic


Understanding how the brain processes language at the first event of 2013 BAW in Barcelona, What is Alexia?

Last Wednesday, 13th March, a group of brain-enthusiastic barcelonians gathered in the Library of the Sagrada Familia, in spite of the awful weather, to attend the first of the events organised to celebrate Brain Awareness Week in the city, ‘What is Alexia?
In the packed auditorium, the conversation started with the emotional recollection of Angels Prat Plan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Barcelona. With her academic career, Angels is not new to conferences. But this time she wasn’t on stage to describe her studies, as a professor. She shared with us her experience, as a patient.
Last year, Angels was finishing writing the book ‘Competències científiques i lectura a secundària’ when she realised with incredulity and shock that she had troubles reading: she could see symbols on the paper, but she wasn’t able to make sense of them. Doctors found out that she had caught Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection. Toxoplasmosis left Angels with ‘Alexia pura’: she could still write, speak and understand language without problems, but she couldn’t remember letters and numbers, and therefore couldn’t read a sentence. It shocked us to know that it’d take her a minute to read nine words. Although her symptoms have improved with therapy, Angels knows that patients with alexia cannot learn to read from scratch, as a five year old does, because something irreversible has happened in the brain.
Angels’ s story introduced the second talk of the evening on ‘Developmental Dyslexia’, by Begoña Diaz, Postdoctoral Fellow at  Pompeu Fabra University. Whereas alexia is also known as acquired dyslexia, because it is caused by an external event, developmental dyslexia is a genetic trait: it can be passed from father to son, pretty much as the color of eyes, or the shape of the nose. This means that someone is born dyslexic, although he would generally get diagnosed at scholar age.

It is estimated that 5-10 % of the population suffers from dyslexia, with no particular differences in race or gender. Most of us are aware that dyslexia determines difficulties in reading. However Begoña explained that the entire story is more complex than that. Dyslexia is an impairment in the processing of phonemes, the sounds of letters. This causes in turn a difficulty in associating letters, the arbitrary symbols we see on a paper, with sounds. That’s why ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ for dyslexic people are hard things to do.

Not only reading, but also hearing someone in a crowded place, or repeating a world they have never heard before is a hard task for people with dyslexia.
But how is a brain of a dyslexic person different from the one of a non-dyslexic? Scientists have used functional magnetic resonance, or fMRI to answer this question. fMRI is a technique that allows to see which areas of the brain are more active while performing something. The fMRI machine detects changes in oxygen consumption in certain brain areas upon stimulation. These changes are visualized as ‘pictures’ of the brain, where the more active areas appear as they are ‘lighting up’. Thanks to this technique, scientists could find the ‘neural signature’ of dyslexia, basically, they could localize where the malfunction in the brain is.

Dyslexic people do not activate an area in the left posterior hemisphere as non-dyslexic do.
However, that is not the end of the story. The brain is a wonderful organ, able to find alternative strategies to fix a problem. Begoña showed us how the brain of dyslexic people activates some areas in the frontal and posterior right hemisphere, to partially compensate for the ‘laziness’ of the left one.

An important message Begoña stressed is that although dyslexia is a hard condition to live with, it is not a measurement of a person’s intelligence or a sentence to an unsuccessful life: people like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway were dyslexic… need to say more?
Finally, Albert Costa, ICREA Research Professor at the Pompeu Fabra University took the stage. Albert studies bilingualism, inspired not only by the reality in Barcelona, where people speak both Catalan and Castellan, but also by the fact that the entire world is basically getting bilingual.

Albert showed us how a bilingual brain is different from a monolingual one not only in function, but in structure. Studies performed during awake brain surgery have allowed a better understanding of the localization of brain areas involved in language processing. Although this can sound scary, awake brain surgery is performed routinely when surgeons may have to work around the areas involved in language to remove a brain tumor. During surgery, the patient is awake and a speech therapist asks him questions, keeping him monitored while the surgeons stimulate different point on the cortex. If by touching a specific point the patient cannot talk, the surgeons know that they have to find an alternative way to the tumour. In bilingual patients, doctors found that stimulating certain areas made the patient unable to speak at all, but stimulating other areas prevented him to speak just one language.
Bilingualism doesn’t just affects the way the language is processed in the brain. For example, bilingualism can confer and advance in solving conflicting tasks. Albert made us practicing an interactive exercise, known as Simon test. He asked us to raise the left hand when a red spot appeared on the screen and the right hand when the spot was green. The two spots appeared randomly on the left or right side of the screen, generating confusion on which hand to rise. Even if we had been given instruction on raising the left hand when the spot is green, the position of the spot (left or right) generated a certain confusion, especially when the spots alternate fast ( seriously, I’ve tried!). Scientists have shown that this confusion effect, caused by conflicting signals, is reduced in bilingual people, practically conferring bilingual people an advantage in solving difficult tasks.
Another particularly interesting counterpart of bilingualism is the beneficial effect that it has on some diseases.

In bilingual people symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease occur in average around four year later than in non-bilingual people. Unfortunately, even bilingual get AD, and both languages are affected by the disease in the same way, with the same rate of decline in ‘finding words’.
This evening was a fascinating way to start BAW in Barcelona.Were you there? What did you learn that surprised you?

If you want to learn more, don’t miss the Unconference, next Wednesday, 20th March, 2013.

I hope to see you there!

MÚSICA EN LA INFANCIA: La Neurociencia de las canciones de cuna explicada por la psicóloga del desarrollo Sandra Trehub

La Prof. Trehub explicando la canción de cuna de la madre gabonesa (al fondo en la diapositiva). Foto:NMM

En la segunda charla del ciclo de música y cerebro que tuvo lugar en el auditorio del museo CosmoCaixa de Barcelona apenas si cabía un alfiler. Los allí congregados teníamos un objetivo en común: escuchar lo que la doctora Sandra Trehub, psicóloga del desarrollo y profesora emérita en la universidad de Toronto, tenía que decirnos sobre el desarrollo de las distintas habilidades musicales en la infancia. … Continue Reading

Noelia Martínez Molina Estudiante predoctoral en la Universidad de Barcelona Brain Cognition and Plasticity Group

¿Cómo cantaban los neandertales? Las bases evolutivas de la música


El jueves 31 de enero dio comienzo el ciclo de conferencias en torno a la música y su impacto sobre el cuerpo y la mente en el museo Cosmocaixa de Barcelona. Esta iniciativa pretende ante todo atraer al gran público al campo emergente de la neurociencia cognitiva de la música. Pero no se queda aquí. Entre la lista de los conferenciantes encontramos investigadores pertenecientes a disciplinas muy diversas, desde la musicología hasta la arqueología. Se trata por tanto de un ciclo de naturaleza altamente integradora. Prueba de ello fue la primera conferencia a cargo de Steven Mithen, profesor de la universidad de Reading en el Reino Unido y autor del libro “Los neandertales cantaban rap”. … Continue Reading

Noelia Martínez Molina Estudiante predoctoral en la Universidad de Barcelona Brain Cognition and Plasticity Group

Los zombies y el estudio de la consciencia

Hay veces que la divulgación de la ciencia se hace de una forma tan espectacular, que hasta los más reacios a aprender algo nuevo son incapaces de resistirse.The Science Museum en Londres explota el filón cinematográfico y televisivo de los muertes vivientes para hablar sobre la consciencia.

La exposición “Zombielab” se plantea como una aventura: un brote virulento desemboca en un ataque zombie en las instalaciones del museo, y  los asistentes han de realizar una serie de actividades para sobrevivir. Entre las propuestas hay charlas sobre consciencia, juegos interactivos e incluso la posibilidad de participar en experimentos en vivo.

Zombielab reune a científicos expertos en consciencia para explicar los últimos avances de la neurociencia en este campo. Puede que los zombies no den miedo a ningún neurocientífico en sus cabales, pero enfrentarse a las preguntas del publico puede ser terrorífico.

Pinchar aquí para ver el Programa de Zombielab.

ZombieLab at the Science Museum's January Lates

… Continue Reading

Gran éxito de la primera Conferencia Internacional de Neurorehabilitación

Clínicos y tecnólogos encontraron en Toledo un foro mundial para hablar de tecnología y neurorehabilitación. Este evento, organizado por el CSIC, mostró al Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos a la vanguardia de la investigación en neurorehabilitación, según afirmó su director Francisco Marí

Más de trescientos investigadores de veinte países del mundo acudieron a Toledo el pasado 17 de noviembre para hablar sobre neurorobótica, neuroprotésica y realidad virtual, durante la Conferencia Internacional de Neurorehabilitación (ICNR 2012) que finaliza hoy con los últimos talleres y sesiones especiales.

El evento científico internacional fue organizado por el Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) y el Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos, centro que gestiona el gobierno de Castilla –La Mancha.

El director del Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos, Francisco Marí, expresó su satisfacción por los resultados de este evento, “Toledo y nuestro hospital se han convertido en un referente internacional en investigación, donde científicos del ámbito clínico y tecnólogos de disciplinas emergentes han compartido experiencias y han puesto en valor sus innovaciones”

Para Marí esta Conferencia Internacional de Neurorehabilitación “muestra cómo Parapléjicos está en la vanguardia de la investigación en consonancia con la apuesta por el centro por parte de la Consejería de Sanidad y Asuntos Sociales de Castilla –La Mancha y el SESCAM”.


La conferencia Internacional forma parte de los objetivos del proyecto HYPER, siglas que responden a “Dispositivos Híbridos Neuroprotésicos y Neurorrobóticos para la Compensación Funcional y Rehabilitación de Trastornos del Movimiento” .

El proyecto HYPER implica a nueve grandes centros de investigación de España, como el HNP, coordinados por el Grupo de Bioingeniería del CSIC, al frente del cual está el doctor en Física por la Universidad Complutense, José Luis Pons.

… Continue Reading

Jornadas de investigación en biomedicina: la neurociencia toma protagonismo

La neurociencia tendrá un lugar destacado en las jornadas. Si os interesa participar, el plazo de inscripción termina el 24 de septiembre

 En un lugar de la Mancha, cuyo nombre es Albacete, se vienen celebrando desde hace ya nueve años las llamadas Jornadas de Jóvenes Investigadores. Éstas, como de costumbre, se desarrollarán en la Facultad de Medicina de Albacete durante los días 4 y 5 de Octubre de 2012.

A pesar del desfavorable contexto económico de los últimos años, esta reunión científica continúa congregando numerosos investigadores noveles de toda España (principalmente residentes y becarios pre- y postdoctorales) que trabajan en las áreas de la Neurociencia y Biomedicina en general. Constituye una plataforma idónea diseñada por y para los investigadores en formación, algo inusual en la organización y desarrollo de este tipo de eventos.

Durante dos días muy intensos, en un ambiente totalmente jovial y distendido, tenemos la oportunidad de debatir nuestros hallazgos con otros colegas, así como con un exquisito elenco de investigadores senior (algunos de los cuales han sido premiados con el Príncipe de Asturias, Jaume I, etc). Además, fomentamos laparticipación externa mediante el alojamiento en casas de otros becarios de la ciudad (programa Becario Solidario) y el abaratamiento de los billetes de tren (hasta un 30% de descuento).

Desde la Organización de las Jornadas, te animamos participar y consultar la web del congreso: ixjornadasajiab.wordpress.com/. El plazo de inscripción y envío de comunicaciones termina el 24 de Septiembre de 2012.

¡No dejes pasar esta oportunidad única, anímate y participa!

Autor: Nicanor Morales-Delgado, PhD

Cocinar con el Cerebro

La Chef de Sant Pol de Mar, Carme Ruscalleda, fue la encargada de abrir este año 2012 el congreso de neurociencias de la FENS con una conferencia sobre sus inspiraciones culinarias. El catedrático de fisiología de la universidad de la Coruña, Javier Cudeiro, presentó el evento e introdujo al oyente a comprender la importancia de conocer cómo funciona el cerebro sentado en la mesa

Dim sum de peras de Sant Jaume, beso de almendras tiernas o gominola de limoncello. Son algunos de los suculentos platos que componen el menú de verano de la famosa cocinera catalana, Carme Ruscalleda, con quien tuvimos oportunidad de hablar durante el 8º Congreso de la Federación Europea de Sociedades de Neurociencia (FENS) celebrado en Barcelona. Cuenta la profesional de los fogones que la base de su inspiración culinaria es la naturaleza, seguido de la voluntad de hacer con el producto seleccionado algo nuevo porque así “lo espera también el cliente”.

El proceso es largo. La inspiración por si sola no es efectiva sin una buena dosis de creatividad. Es entonces cuando se activan todas las áreas del cerebro para dar lugar a ese plato con el que deleitar todos nuestros sentidos. La misma Ruscalleda afirma que el “sentido” más usado por los gourmets es la mente: “El gourmet tiene almacenada en su memoria muchos sabores. Cuando uno más conoce, más puede jugar y emparejar. Es muy reconfortante tener memoria gustativa y haber descubierto alimentos que quizá nunca más vuelvas a tomar en tu vida, pero permanecen en tu memoria”.

… Continue Reading


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European Journal of Neuroscience