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Current Studies

In addition to two graduate theses projects utilizing EMG, the lab is engaged in the early stages of establishing an ambitious 3-study sequence to explore the neural mechanisms and brain activation patterns underlying instrumental music improvisation.

In their study with professional jazz pianists, Limb and Braun (2008) describe patterns of neural activity involved in improvisation as they differ from those when compared to the performance of over-learned music. Using fMRI, they found a significant dissociated pattern of activity whereby improvisation resulted in activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital cortices. Connected to behavioral output, Limb described the process as activation of brain regions thought to be involved with self expression and the generation of autobiographical information, and deactivation of areas involved with self-monitoring or inhibition.
We are proposing to further develop the original Limb findings in an attempt to explore the neural mechanisms involved with improvisation and a clinical population, and toward the development of reliable and replicable therapeutic methodologies involving instrumental improvisation. We are proposing a three-study sequence toward these objectives.

The primary questions of the proposed three-study sequence are as follows:

1. Can similar neural activation patterns be induced in neuro-typical non-musicians while improvising music? Does the activation pattern require expertise or do novices demonstrate similar activity? Are similar activation patterns observed while musically improvising in individuals diagnosed with alexithymia, a condition marked by difficulty or inability to express emotions? Can instrumental improvisation be used effectively as a means of self-expression with individuals diagnosed with alexithymia?

Experiment 1 will involve similar procedures to the Limb & Braun study, utilizing fMRI imaging and using non-expert subjects, that is, a neuro-typical pediatric non-musician population.

Experiment 2 will utilize similar procedures and fMRI imaging capabilities with a population of children and adolescents diagnosed with alexithymia.

Experiment 3 will test the clinical effectiveness of instrumental improvisation for persons diagnosed with alexithymia utilizing a randomized control design. Multi-observer video observations of behavioral outcomes, standardized testing, subject self-report, and psychophysiological measurements will be employed to assess the therapeutic validity of the use of instrumental improvisation as a treatment technique for this population. These studies are in development in collaboration and consultation with Dr. Daniel Levitin (McGill University) and Dr. Charles Limb (Johns Hopkins Medicine and Peabody Institute) with a targeted onset of Fall 2012.


Roth, E.A. & Smith, K.H. (2008). The Mozart Effect: Evidence for the arousal hypothesis. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 107, 396-402.

Baker, F., & Roth, E.A. (2004). Neuroplasticity and functional recovery: Training models and Compensatory strategies in Music Therapy.