Neuroscience and the arts: Highlights from the Society for Neuroscience Conference

News & Reports

By Dana Swarbrick

The 48th annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Conference took place in San Diego, California, on November 3-7, 2018, with topics ranging from molecular biology to rehabilitation sciences. With over 30,000 members, SfN hosted a well-attended conference which showcased a variety of presentation styles, including daily poster sessions, symposia, and keynote lectures. Select presentations highlighted the intersection of arts and neuroscience and the mechanisms underlying the usage of arts for rehabilitative therapies.

Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society with Jazz Legend Dr. Pat Metheny

During the annual “Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society” lecture, 20-time Grammy award winner and prolific jazz guitarist, Dr. Pat Metheny (1), spoke to a crowd of thousands about his experiences creating and performing music. Metheny has received critical acclaim for his proficiency at jazz guitar improvisation, a style in which music is created spontaneously without prior practice or planning. In his lecture, Metheny described improvisation as “the rare, exalted territory where we can be free.”

After his speech, Methany was interviewed by neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Limb and SfN President-Elect Dr. Richard Huganir.

Dr. Limb has used functional neuroimaging to examine the “neural trace of freedom,” that is, the events in musicians’ brains that support improvisation. Expert improvisers demonstrated deactivation in brain regions responsible for monitoring their actions and increased activation in regions responsible for representation of the self, suggesting that improvisation offers freedom for improvisers to be themselves and to escape their inhibitions (2).

Metheny suggested that improvisation is not very different from the research process. Conducting research requires risk-taking and passion. During the poster sessions, several researchers discussed how they combine their artistic passions with neuroscience in order to facilitate rehabilitation.

Poster Presentations at the Intersection of Art and Science

Dancing Slows Parkinson’s Disease Progression


Dr. Joe DeSouza (3) presented work conducted by his PhD student Karolina Bearss, which demonstrated that weekly dance classes protected against Parkinson’s disease progression in patients. Neuroimaging data suggested that this protection may be afforded by increased activation in the supplementary motor area, a neural region involved in the control of movement and which is usually negatively affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Magic Improves Hand Functioning in Children with Cerebral Palsy

Dr. Arturo Nuara (4) developed a treatment to improve hand functioning in children with cerebral palsy. In collaboration with a professional magician, card-dark-floating-1236730videos were developed to teach children magic tricks that required usage of their slightly paralyzed hand. Through video conferencing, children then practiced the magic tricks with a partner who also has cerebral palsy. The study found that children demonstrated improved hand functioning after practice. Interestingly, the greater the skill difference between partners, the better the improvement in the child with worse functioning before practice. These results suggest that practicing with a better partner can improve recovery.

Nuara attributes the efficacy of this treatment to the mirror neuron system. In animals, mirror neurons are activated both when an animal executes an action and when it observes the same action (5). Similarly, in humans, the mirror neuron network is a collection of brain regions that are active during both observation and execution of an action, helping us interpret another’s movements and their meaning (6).

Walk to This Dope Beat

Rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) is a therapy that combines music and science to facilitate walking in patients with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder affecting movement (7). Music or a metronome is played while patients are walking to facilitate synchronization and a steady gait rhythm. Yuko Koshimori used positron emission topography (PET) imaging to visualize and track dopamine responses in brain cells during RAS to enhance understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this treatment.

Doctor Prescribes Daily Dose of Music for Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Michael Thaut (8) presented neuroimaging data suggesting that after three weeks of daily exposure to familiar music, patients with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated increased efficiency and connectivity in neural regions associated with memory and cognition, and corresponding improvements in a standardized memory test.

Emotional Memory is Intact in Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Amy Belfi (9) demonstrated the distinction between emotional memory and declarative memory (memory of facts and events) and how, in Alzheimer’s disease, the former remains intact while memory of events is impaired.

Get Active for (Physiological) Change

Trevor McPherson (10) examined physiological differences between active and passive music therapy interventions. Specifically, he examined markers of sympathetic nervous system activity—the system responsible for the body’s response to stress. His research suggests that active engagement in music therapy is important for receiving its benefits.

Where the Brain Meets the Soul: Neuroscience and Arts

While the physiological measures applied by researchers are important to understand the mechanisms underlying how the arts can facilitate rehabilitation, many within the scientific community have begun to question the efficacy of taking such a reductionist approach where physiology is examined without the behaviour itself (11). During the question period, an audience member asked Limb, Huganir, and Metheny to comment on what they would consider to be a satisfactory understanding of the neuroscience of music. Limb and Huganir—the neuroscientists—discussed their anticipation for improved scientific methodologies that offer greater resolution, thus persisting in a reductionist approach. However, Metheny’s contrasting response received an outburst of applause:

“I still think there is going to be a point where you will bump into the soul factor and it… is hard to know how that will ever be quantified.”

The soul may forever evade researchers, but rehabilitation interventions that both utilize the arts and engage the soul will continue helping patients, even if the underlying mechanisms can never be uncovered.


Featured illustration by Christine Shan for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Swarbrick D. Neuroscience and the arts: Highlights from the Society for Neuroscience Conference. rehabINK. 2019;6. Available from:


  1. Metheny P. Dialogues Between neuroscience and society: music and the brain. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  2. Limb CJ, Braun AR. Neural Substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an fMRI Study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One. 2008;3(2):e1679.
  3. DeSouza J, Bearss K. Progression of Parkinson’s disease symptoms halted using dance over 3-years as assessed with MDS-UPDRS. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  4. Nuara A, Avanzini P, Rizzolatti G, Fabbri-Destro M. Action-observation treatment through an interactive home-based platform promoting child-to-child interaction improves hand function in children suffering from unilateral cerebral palsy. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  5. Gallese V, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Rizzolatti G. Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain. 1996 Apr;119(Pt 2):593–609.
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  7. Koshimori Y, Strafella A, Valli M, Sharma V, Cho S, Houle S, et al. Motor synchronization to rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) attenuates dopamine responses in the ventral striatum in young healthy adults. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  8. Thaut MH, Schweizer TA, Leggieri M, Churchill N, Fornazzari L, Fischer C. Neural basis for preservation of musical memory and effects on functional intra network connectivity in early Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  9. Belfi AM, Reschke-Hernandez A, Guzman-Velez E, Tranel D. Music and emotion in Alzheimer’s disease. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  10. McPherson T, Berger D, Alagapan S, Frohlich F. Physiological correlates of the ANS and HPA-axis in active and passive music therapy interventions. In: Society for Neuroscience. San Diego, CA; 2018.
  11. Krakauer JW, Ghazanfar AA, Gomez-Marin A, MacIver MA, Poeppel D. Neuroscience Needs behavior: correcting a reductionist bias. Neuron. 2017;93(3):480–90.