Making music from brain activity during seizures

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

music mind
Professor Chris Chafe stands with an undergraduate researcher to talk about brain activity, which is represented on the wall with those squiggly lines.

This may be surprising to hear, but not all music comes from instruments and people. There are surprising amounts of sound in nature we can’t hear, but a special process known as “musification” converts them into sweet rhythms for our ears. Want to know what a brain sounds like?  Well, neurologist Josef Parvizi music researcher Chris Chafe – both from Stanford University –  built a “brain stethoscope” to record our head’s electrical activity and jam out!

The thing is, our brains are essentially electrical organs. The cells that make up our brain use teeny tiny surges of electricity to communicate with one another. However, people who suffer from “epilepsy” often experience an unusually high amount of brain activity. The surge in electricity can lead to a “seizure,” which disrupts normal physical and mental functions.

Stanford researchers recorded this brain activity to create their unique “music” experiment. Parvizi placed around 100 electrodes – which record electricity – into the brain of patients; both during normal brain activity and seizures. He then sent the recordings to Chafe, who translated them into music, and as you can imagine, it sounded pretty interesting!

When brain activity was normal, the researchers described the ”sounds” as a symphony working in perfect harmony. However, once the subtle signs of a seizure began to creep up, the “symphony” twisted into offbeat chaos. Finally when the seizure kicked in all the way, the brain sounded like one part of the “band” was fighting to play the loudest. It was a gigantic mess!

However, the researchers realized the brain music can be much more useful than just making cool science songs. “My initial interest was an artistic one at heart, but, surprisingly, we could instantly differentiate seizure activity from non-seizure states with just our ears,” Chafe said. “It was like turning a radio dial from a static-filled station to a clear one.” They hope to transform their method into a way of detecting seizures better.

Featured image courtesy of hmomoy on Flickr. Image of Professor Chris Chafe courtesy of L.A. Cicero and Stanford University. Video courtesy of Stanford Hospital.