Rhythm on the brain


Professor Sylvie Nozaradan has received an ERC Starting Grant. This prestigious European funding will help her continue her research on the brain’s perception and production of rhythms. Here’s a portrait of an atypical researcher who studied medicine and music...at the same time.      

In 2002, Professor Sylvie Nozaradan began studying piano at the Brussels Conservatory. ‘I had a lot of questions about the brain and how it works, questions about perception and musical performance’, she says. These questions intrigued her so much that she began studying medicine at the same time. Taking on two such long,1 demanding and competitive courses isn’t easy. ‘However, the two courses seemed complementary to me. In the morning I went to medical school, and in the afternoon I practised at the conservatory. It was inspiring and refreshing!’ 

From Canada to Australia

In medicine, Prof. Nozaradan is interested in neurophysiology. ‘The interface between the brain and the perception and production of music, language or movement is one of the most complex issues in biology...and is still unresolved. Moreover, the field combined my two centres of interest.’ But at the time, there was no such research being conducted at UCLouvain. Once she graduated, she went to Montreal. After a first internship at the International Laboratory for Research on the Brain, Music and Sound (BRAMS), she completed a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, co-supervised by UCLouvain’s Institute of Neuroscience (IONS). After earning her PhD, she continued her work in both institutions before flying to Sydney in 2016, where she won major research funding.  

Understanding the brain through music

Since the beginning, Prof. Nozaradan's work has focused on the perception of rhythm, especially ‘beats’, and the synchronisation of neurons at the rhythm in question. A rhythm is not just a matter of ear and hearing. ‘The auditory system is only the gateway to rhythmic information in the brain’, she explains. ‘The perception of beat underlies the simultaneous activation of other brain areas – the frontal lobe, for example, which manages motor functions, makes us nod, kick and dance. It's a universal mechanism – we produce music and dance in all cultures. But there are great disparities between individuals: some have "rhythm in their blood", while others have great difficulty in clapping their hands at the right pace. Where do these differences come from? How does the synchronisation of neurons to rhythm work? What factors influence it? Is it modulated by training or prior knowledge of music?’ 

To explore these questions, Prof. Nozaradan uses the electroencephalogram. ‘We record the brain’s electrical activity while the volunteer listens to a rhythm, music or marks the rhythm with his hand, for example. We use this brain activity to try to understand how the brain processes rhythmic information under different circumstances.’

A new research laboratory

The European Research Council was convinced by Prof. Nozaradan's research and awarded her an ERC Starting Grant. This will enable her to create her own laboratory at UCLouvain and recruit other young researchers. Together, they will work on different angles of research to:

  1. understand the origin of inter-individual differences in perception of rhythm by studying in many volunteers the synchronisation of neurons and movements to different types of rhythmic stimuli (musical, visual, etc.);
  2. study how the brains of babies are structured and what is innate and acquired (through training, for example) in the perception of rhythms;
  3. record the brain activity of epileptic patients already equipped with intracerebral electrodes – an unprecedented approach that promises to provide highly precise information;   
  4. evaluate how the brains of ‘brain-damaged’ patients process rhythmic information, in order to determine to what extent it would be possible to reactivate injured brain areas through rhythmic information. 

This research programme aims to understand how the brain works – what we still largely don’t know. While some see the brain as a supercomputer, Prof. Nozaradan doesn’t share that vision. ‘From my point of view, we must put the brain back into its biological context. It’s an organ in a body and an environment, whose structure and function are shaped through evolution, individual development, and everyday experiences. It remains to be discovered how.’  

Candice Leblanc

(1)    At the time, piano studies at the conservatory lasted six years and medicine seven years.  

A Glance at Sylvie Nozaradan's bio

2005: Master’s Degree in Music, Brussels Royal Conservatory
2009: Bachelor ’s Degree in Medicine (neurology), UCLouvain
2013: PhD in Neurosciences, Institute of Neurosciences (IONS), UCLouvain, under co-supervision by BRAMS, Université de Montréal (Canada)
2013-2016: FNRS Postdoctoral Researcher
2016-2018: Researcher, MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University (Australia), and winner of the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award of the Australian Research Council
Since 2018: Assistant Professor, IONS, UCLouvain

Published on October 11, 2018