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S.F. composers meld sound with science for new perspective on Alzheimer's

Composers meld sound with science for new perspective on Alzheimer's
Composers meld sound with science for new perspective on Alzheimer's 03:09

SAN FRANCISCO -- At one of the top music schools in the country, two students and their professor set out on a remarkable journey. It was an endeavor that would take them on an exploration into the mysteries of the human brain and Alzheimer's disease.

Inside a studio at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Natasha Frank and Lina Harrison listened to an original piece they've created called "The Spinning Wheel." The recording is more than just a piano and cello.

Incorporated into the composition is the electrical activity of brains, measured by electroencephalograms. Doctors recorded them as subjects slept. Special software then converted the data into a musical score. Some of the individuals had Alzheimer's.

"It was our job to translate it into art -- something that everyone could feel and understand," explained composer Natasha Frank.

Sounds generated from healthy brain sound perfectly in tune but, because Alzheimer's patients' sleep patterns are erratic, music derived from their EEGs sounds off key.

"So, when you hear this in contrast to the healthy human sleep, that's when it all comes together and makes sense by the end of the piece," Professor Barrera said.

Along on this musical odyssey are two UCSF neuroscientists: Dr. Sri Nagarajan and Dr. Kamalini Ranasinghe.

Dr. Ranasinghe provided the data to the young composers. As to why the sleep patterns sound out of tune, Dr. Ranasinghe explained.

"In Alzheimer's disease -- it's a disease of aging and it's the disease where the neurons and neural circuits die and what we found in our research is that the rhythms in their brains -- the electrical activity that's generated by these neurons -- they change," Ranasinghe said.

It's a change that can be devastating.

"One way we can appreciate that is, I suppose, through understanding how it might change the corresponding musical patterns," Dr. Nagarajan added.

Back in the studio, Lina Harrison revealed how the composition struck a personal note.

"I have some family members who have suffered from memory loss conditions and I think that it really struck me on what might be going on in their mind," Harrison said.

"On a larger scale this is a way for us to incorporate science, art and technology," said Professor Barrera.

The unusual collaboration was a mutual success.

"I would really like to see more and more music produced in different stages of these brain rhythms and what happens to them in the different stages of this disease," Dr. Ranasinghe said.

Everyone involved told KPIX that they hope the creation inspires compassion as it offers a new perspective on dementia.


San Francisco Conservatory of Music 

Taurin Barrera

Kamalini Ranasinghe

Sri Nagarajan

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