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Musical genes may be coming to light

April 30, 2008
Special to World Science  

Sci­en­tists say they’ve found ap­prox­i­mate loca­t­ions in our ge­nome where genes af­fect­ing mu­si­cal tal­ent may lie, the re­sults of the first, small study to sys­tem­at­ic­ally seek these out.

The find­ings suggest mu­si­cal abil­ity is partly ge­net­ic and may share ev­o­lu­tion­ary roots with lan­guage, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, who stud­ied Finn­ish fam­i­lies. 

The work may al­so be a step to­ward re­veal­ing “the role of mu­sic in hu­man brain func­tion, hu­man ev­o­lu­tion and its rela­t­ion­ship to lan­guage,” they wrote, though they added it will take larg­er fol­low­up stud­ies to clar­i­fy this.

The study of 234 Finns from 15 fam­i­lies—all with at least some mu­sicians—was pub­lished in the April 18 ad­vance on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Med­i­cal Ge­net­ics.

Kris­ti­ina Pul­li of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Hel­sin­ki and col­leagues tested the par­ti­ci­pants us­ing so-called link­age anal­y­ses, a type of probe de­signed to tie par­tic­u­lar traits to spe­cif­ic ar­eas of the ge­nome. 

The anal­y­sis works by ex­am­in­ing wheth­er a giv­en trait of­ten oc­curs in peo­ple who al­so have a dis­tinct bit of ge­net­ic code at a known ge­nomic site. If so, it sug­gests this “mark­er” code is phys­ic­ally near a gene for that trait; oth­er­wise, gene-scram­b­l­ing pro­cesses in­volved in re­pro­duc­tion would tend to en­sure the two things stopped oc­cur­ring to­gether.

As part of the re­search, each par­ti­ci­pant al­so took three tests of mu­si­cal ap­ti­tude.

The re­search­ers re­ported find­ing “sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence” for an as­socia­t­ion be­tween that abil­ity and a small re­gion of Chro­mo­some 4. Hu­man genes lie on about two doz­en dis­tinct chro­mo­somes, most num­bered by size from big­gest to small­est.

The patch of DNA in ques­tion en­com­passed about 50 genes, Pul­li and col­leagues wrote. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est with­in these, they added, was one known as netrin re­cep­tor UNC5C pre­cur­sor. This gene, they wrote, in­ter­acts with mo­le­cules that gov­ern the de­vel­op­ment of brain cells and their intercon­nec­tions. Mu­ta­tions in the gene are al­so in­di­rectly linked to de­fects in time and pitch pro­cess­ing, they added.

There’s al­so ev­i­dence such mutations may be con­nect­ed to the lan­guage dys­func­tion dys­lex­ia, sug­gest­ing pos­si­ble con­nec­tions be­tween mu­sic and lan­guage, the team pro­posed. In­ter­est­ing­ly, they added, of the three mu­si­cal tests they used, the one with the strongest ap­par­ent link to the gene re­gion is al­so pre­dic­tive of dys­lex­ia, which im­pairs read­ing and spell­ing abil­ity.

The team al­so re­ported two oth­er snip­pets of the ge­nome pos­sibly but more weakly linked to mu­si­cal ap­ti­tude, on Chro­mo­somes 8 and 18—the lat­ter at a re­gion al­so linked to dys­lex­ia.

In find­ings that ech­oed Pul­li’s some­what, a sep­a­rate group re­ported in the April 16 ad­vance on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­sci­ence that chil­dren with lan­guage syn­tax deficits al­so have mu­si­cal dif­fi­cul­ties .

Sci­en­tists have long sus­pected mu­sic might have ge­net­ic roots. “Mu­sic is an an­cient and un­iver­sal fea­ture across all hu­man so­ci­eties,” not­ed Pul­li and col­leagues. The not-un­com­mon ap­pear­ance of fam­i­lies of mu­si­cians, such as the clan that fa­mously spawned J.S. Bach in 1685, al­so sug­gest a ge­net­ic basis, the re­search­ers added—though oth­er fac­tors could ex­plain that phe­nom­e­non.

Their stu­dy, they con­tin­ued, while too small to be de­fin­i­tive, is “a start­ing point for fur­ther map­ping, isola­t­ion, and char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of genes that pre­dis­pose to mu­si­cal ap­ti­tude.”


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Scientists say they’ve found approximate locations in our genome where genes affecting musical talent may lie, the results of the first, small study to systematically seek these out. The findings support the view that musical ability is partly genetic and may share evolutionary roots with language, according to the researchers, who studied Finnish families. The work may also be a step toward revealing “the role of music in human brain function, human evolution and its relationship to language,” they wrote, though they added it will take larger followup studies to clarify this. The study of 234 Finns from 15 families—all with at least some musicians—was published in the April 18 advance online issue of The Journal of Medical Genetics. Kristiina Pulli of the University of Helsinki and colleagues tested the participants using so-called linkage analyses, a type of probe designed to tie particular traits to specific areas of the genome. The analysis does so by examining whether a given trait often occurs in people who also have a known, distinct bit of genetic code. If so, it suggests this genetic “marker” is physically near a gene for that trait; otherwise, the connection would tend to dissolve, thanks to gene-scrambling processes involved in reproduction. As part of the research, each participant also took three tests of musical aptitude. The researchers reported finding “significant evidence” for an association between that ability and a small region of Chromosome 4. Human genes lie on about two dozen distinct chromosomes, most numbered by size from biggest to smallest. The patch of DNA in question encompassed about 50 genes, Pulli and colleagues wrote. Of particular interest within these, they added, was one known as netrin receptor UNC5C precursor. This gene, they wrote, interacts with molecules that govern the development of brain cells and their interconnections. The gene is also indirectly linked to defects in time and pitch processing, they added. There’s also evidence the gene may be connected to the language dysfunction dyslexia, suggesting possible connections between music and language, the team proposed. Interestingly, they added, of the three musical tests they used, the one with the strongest apparent link to the gene region is also predictive of dyslexia, which impairs reading and spelling ability. The team also reported two other snippets of the genome possibly but more weakly linked to musical ability, on Chromosomes 8 and 18—the latter at a location also tied to dyslexia. In findings that echoed Pulli’s somewhat, a separate group reported in the April 16 advance online issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that children with language syntax deficits also have musical difficulties. Scientists have long suspected music might have genetic roots. “Music is an ancient and universal feature across all human societies,” noted Pulli and colleagues. The not-uncommon appearance of musician-families, such as the clan that famously spawned J.S. Bach in 1685, also suggested a genetic component, they added—though other factors could explain that phenomenon. Their study, they continued, while too small to be definitive, is “a starting point for further mapping, isolation, and characterization of genes that predispose to musical aptitude.”