Chapter 9. Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
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by Rachel Ehrenberg Eating artificial sweeteners may spur the very health problems that dieters try to avoid. A new multipronged study of mice and a small number of people finds that saccharin meddles with the gut’s microbial community, setting in motion metabolic changes that are associated with obesity and diabetes. Other zero-calorie sweeteners may cause the same problems, researchers say September 17 in Nature. Though the finding is preliminary, four of seven human volunteers eating a diet high in saccharin developed impaired glucose metabolism, a warning sign for type 2 diabetes. “This is very interesting and scary if it really does hold for humans,” says Robert Margolskee of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who was not involved with the work. “There could be unintended consequences of these artificial sweeteners.” Until recently, most sugar substitutes were thought to pass through the gut undigested, exerting little to no effect on intestinal cells. As ingredients in diet soda, sugar-free desserts and a panoply of other foods, the sweeteners are touted as a way for people with diabetes and weight problems to enjoy a varied diet. But the new study, led by computational biologist Eran Segal and immunologist Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, suggests that rather than helping people, the sweeteners may promote problems. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
By JOSHUA A. KRISCH PHILADELPHIA — McBaine, a bouncy black and white springer spaniel, perks up and begins his hunt at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. His nose skims 12 tiny arms that protrude from the edges of a table-size wheel, each holding samples of blood plasma, only one of which is spiked with a drop of cancerous tissue. The dog makes one focused revolution around the wheel before halting, steely-eyed and confident, in front of sample No. 11. A trainer tosses him his reward, a tennis ball, which he giddily chases around the room, sliding across the floor and bumping into walls like a clumsy puppy. McBaine is one of four highly trained cancer detection dogs at the center, which trains purebreds to put their superior sense of smell to work in search of the early signs of ovarian cancer. Now, Penn Vet, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is teaming with the university’s chemistry and physics departments to isolate cancer chemicals that only dogs can smell. They hope this will lead to the manufacture of nanotechnology sensors that are capable of detecting bits of cancerous tissue 1/100,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper. “We don’t ever anticipate our dogs walking through a clinic,” said the veterinarian Dr. Cindy Otto, the founder and executive director of the Working Dog Center. “But we do hope that they will help refine chemical and nanosensing techniques for cancer detection.” Since 2004, research has begun to accumulate suggesting that dogs may be able to smell the subtle chemical differences between healthy and cancerous tissue, including bladder cancer, melanoma and cancers of the lung, breast and prostate. But scientists debate whether the research will result in useful medical applications. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 20063 - Posted: 09.11.2014
By Lesley Evans Ogden Humans are noisy creatures, our cacophony of jet engines and jackhammering drowning out the communications of other species. In response, a number of animals, including marmosets and whales, turn up their own volume to be heard above the din, a phenomenon called the Lombard effect. A new study reveals that even fish “shout.” Researchers took a close look at the blacktail shiner (Cyprinella venusta), which is common to freshwater streams of the southeastern United States and whose short-distance acoustic signals are often exposed to boat and road noise. Only male shiners make sounds; popping sounds called knocks are used aggressively toward other males, while staticky-sounding “growls” are used for courtship, both heard in the above video. When the scientists brought the fish back to the lab and cranked up white noise from an underwater amplifier, they found that shiner males emitted fewer, shorter pulses, and cranked up the volume of their acoustic signals to be heard above background noise. Published in Behavioral Ecology, it’s the first study documenting the Lombard effect in fish, suggesting that freshwater fish are another group potentially impacted by our ever-increasing hubbub. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By JOHN ROGERS LOS ANGELES (AP) — The founder of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free music lessons to low-income students from gang-ridden neighborhoods began to notice several years ago a hopeful sign: Kids were graduating high school and heading off to UCLA, Tulane and other big universities. That’s when Margaret Martin asked how the children in the Harmony Project were beating the odds. Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois believe that the students’ music training played a role in their educational achievement, helping as Martin noticed 90 percent of them graduate from high school while 50 percent or more didn’t from those same neighborhoods. A two-year study of 44 children in the program shows that the training changes the brain in ways that make it easier for youngsters to process sounds, according to results reported in Tuesday’s edition of The Journal of Neuroscience. That increased ability, the researchers say, is linked directly to improved skills in such subjects as reading and speech. But, there is one catch: People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can’t just crank up the tunes on their iPod. Nina Kraus, the study’s lead researcher and director of Northwestern’s auditory neuroscience laboratory, compared the difference to that of building up one’s body through exercise. ‘‘I like to say to people: You’re not going to get physically fit just watching sports,’’ she said.
|By Jill U. Adams Our noses are loaded with bitter taste receptors, but they're not helping us taste or smell lunch. Ever since researchers at the University of Iowa came to this conclusion in 2009, scientists have been looking for an explanation for why the receptors are there. One speculation is that they warn us of noxious substances. But they may play another role too: helping to fight infections. In addition to common bitter compounds, the nose's bitter receptors also react to chemicals that bacteria use to communicate. That got Noam Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania otolaryngologist, wondering whether the receptors detect pathogens that cause sinus infections. In a 2012 study, his team found that bacterial chemicals elicited two bacteria-fighting responses in cells from the nose and upper airways: movement of the cells' projections that divert noxious things out of the body and release of nitric oxide, which kills bacteria. The findings may have clinical applications. When Cohen recently analyzed bitter taste receptor genes from his patients with chronic sinus infections, he noticed that practically none were supertasters, even though supertasters make up an estimated 25 percent of the population. Supertasters are extra sensitive to bitter compounds in foods. People are either supertasters or nontasters, or somewhere in between, reflecting the genes they carry for a receptor known as T2R38. Cohen thinks supertasters react vigorously to bacterial bitter compounds in the nose and are thus resistant to sinus infections. In nontasters the reaction is weaker, bacteria thrive and sinus infections ensue. These results suggest that a simple taste test could be used to predict who is at risk for recurrent infections and might need more aggressive medical treatment. © 2014 Scientific American
by Jennifer Viegas Spritzing dogs with a “pig perfume” helps prevent them from barking incessantly, jumping frantically on house guests and from engaging in other unwanted behaviors, according to new research. The eau de oink, aka “Boar Mate” or “Stop That,” was formulated by Texas Tech scientist John McGlone, who was looking for a way to curb his Cairn terrier Toto’s non-stop barking. One spritz of the pig perfume seemed to do the trick in an instant without harming his dog. “It was completely serendipitous,” McGlone, who works in the university’s Animal and Food Sciences department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, said in a press release. “One of the most difficult problems is that dogs bark a lot, and it’s one of the top reasons they are given back to shelters or pounds.” The key ingredient is androstenone, a steroid and pheromone produced by male pigs and released in their saliva and fat. When detected by female pigs in heat, they seem to find the male more attractive. (The females assume a mating stance.) One can imagine that dogs spritzed with the scent should not hang around amorous female pigs, but other than that, the product seems to work, according to McGlone. Androstenone smells pungent and is not very appealing to humans, but it can have an effect on mammal behavior, he said. © 2014 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19994 - Posted: 08.26.2014
by Philippa Skett It's the strangest sweet tooth in the world. Birds lost the ability to taste sugars, but nectar-feeding hummingbirds re-evolved the capacity by repurposing receptors used to taste savoury food. To differentiate between tastes, receptors on the surface of taste buds on the tongue, known as T1Rs, bind to molecules in certain foods, triggering a neurological response. In vertebrates such as humans, a pair of these receptors – T1R2 and T1R3 – work together to deliver the sweet kick we experience from sugar. But Maude Baldwin at Harvard University and her colleagues found that birds don't have the genes that code for T1R2. They are found in lizards, though, suggesting that they were lost at some point during the evolution of birds or the dinosaurs they evolved from. But hummingbirds clearly can detect sugar: not only do they regularly sup on nectar, taste tests show they prefer sweet tasting foods over blander options. Now Baldwin and her team have worked out why: another pair of receptors – T1R1 and T1R3 – work together to detect sugar. Other vertebrates use T1R1 to taste savoury foods. It seems that in hummingbirds the proteins on the surface of the two receptors have been modified so that they respond to sugars instead. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
|By Karen Hopkin They say that the nose knows. But it still gets its marching orders from the brain—at least when it comes to the lungs. Got that? Nose to brain to lungs. Because a new study shows that when people with asthma think they’re smelling something noxious, their airways become inflamed—even when the odor is harmless. The finding is in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. [Cristina Jaén and Pamela Dalton, Asthma and odors: The role of risk perception in asthma exacerbation] Asthma attacks can be triggered by pollen, dust, harsh chemicals or scents. These environmental annoyances constrict the airways in the lung, making breathing difficult. In this study, researchers wanted to see whether an individual’s assumptions have any influence over this breathtaking series of events. So they exposed 17 asthma sufferers to a benign chemical that smells like roses for 15 minutes. Nine subjects were told the fragrance was a potential irritant, the other eight that it would be therapeutic. The results were as plain as the nose on your face: subjects who expected an irritant experienced inflammation. And those who were primed to be soothed had no adverse reactions—even if they were normally bothered by perfumes. The results suggest that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or be as irritating as you expect it will. © 2014 Scientific American
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19972 - Posted: 08.19.2014
Hearing voices is an experience that is very distressing for many people. Voices – or “auditory verbal hallucinations” – are one of the most common features of schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. But for a small minority of people, voice-hearing is a regular part of their lives, an everyday experience that isn’t associated with being unwell. It is only in the past 10 years that we have begun to understand what might be going on in “non-clinical” voice-hearing. Most of what we know comes from a large study conducted by Iris Sommer and colleagues at UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands. In 2006 they launched a nationwide attempt to find people who had heard voices before but didn’t have any sort of psychiatric diagnosis. From an initial response of over 4,000 people, they eventually identified a sample of 103 who heard voices at least once a month, but didn’t have psychosis. Their voice-hearing was also not caused by misuse of drugs or alcohol. Twenty-one of the participants were also given an MRI scan. When this group was compared with voice-hearers who did have psychosis, many of the same brain regions were active for both groups while they were experiencing auditory hallucinations, including the inferior frontal gyrus (involved in speech production) and the superior temporal gyrus (linked to speech perception). Subsequent studies with the same non-clinical voice-hearers have also highlighted differences in brain structure and functional connectivity (the synchronisation between different brain areas) compared with people who don’t hear voices. These results suggest that, on a neural level, the same sort of thing is going on in clinical and non-clinical voice-hearing. We know from first-person reports that the voices themselves can be quite similar, in terms of how loud they are, where they are coming from, and whether they speak in words or sentences. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR A new study reports that caffeine intake is associated with a reduced risk for tinnitus — ringing or buzzing in the ears. Researchers tracked caffeine use and incidents of tinnitus in 65,085 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. They were 30 to 34 and without tinnitus at the start of the study. Over the next 18 years, 5,289 developed the disorder. The women recorded their use of soda, coffee and tea (caffeinated and not), as well as intake of candy and chocolate, which can contain caffeine. The results appear in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine. Compared with women who consumed less than 150 milligrams of caffeine a day (roughly the amount in an eight-ounce cup of coffee), those who had 450 to 599 milligrams a day were 15 percent less likely to have tinnitus, and those who consumed 600 milligrams or more were 21 percent less likely. The association persisted after controlling for other hearing problems, hypertension, diabetes, use of anti-inflammatory Nsaid drugs, a history of depression and other factors. Decaffeinated coffee consumption had no effect on tinnitus risk. “We can’t conclude that caffeine is a cure for tinnitus,” said the lead author, Dr. Jordan T. Glicksman, a resident physician at the University of Western Ontario. “But our results should provide some assurance to people who do drink caffeine that it’s reasonable to continue doing so.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19955 - Posted: 08.14.2014
|By Ingrid Wickelgren One important function of your inner ear is stabilizing your vision when your head is turning. When your head turns one way, your vestibular system moves your eyes in the opposite direction so that what you are looking at remains stable. To see for yourself how your inner ears make this adjustment, called the vestibulo-ocular reflex, hold your thumb upright at arm’s length. Shake your head back and forth about twice per second while looking at your thumb. See that your thumb remains in focus. Now create the same relative motion by swinging your arm back and forth about five inches at the same speed. Notice that your thumb is blurry. To see an object clearly, the image must remain stationary on your retina. When your head turns, your vestibular system very rapidly moves your eyes in the opposite direction to create this stability. When the thumb moves, your visual system similarly directs the eyes to follow, but the movement is too slow to track a fast-moving object, causing blur. © 2014 Scientific American
By STEPHANIE FAIRYINGTON A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come. Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me. There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation. The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour. For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.) © 2014 The New York Times Company
|By James Phillips Our inner ear is a marvel. The labyrinthine vestibular system within it is a delicate, byzantine structure made up of tiny canals, crystals and pouches. When healthy, this system enables us to keep our balance and orient ourselves. Unfortunately, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 35 percent of adults over age 40 suffer from vestibular dysfunction. A number of treatments are available for vestibular problems. During an acute attack of vertigo, vestibular suppressants and antinausea medications can reduce the sensation of motion as well as nausea and vomiting. Sedatives can help patients sleep and rest. Anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce any damage from acute inflammation and antibiotics can treat an infection. If a structural change in the inner ear has loosened some of its particulate matter—for instance, if otolith (calcareous) crystals, which are normally in tilt-sensitive sacs, end up in the semicircular canals, making the canals tilt-sensitive—simple repositioning exercises in the clinic can shake the loose material, returning it where it belongs. After a successful round of therapy, patients no longer sense that they are tilting whenever they turn their heads. If vertigo is a recurrent problem, injecting certain medications can reduce or eliminate the fluctuating function in the affected ear. As a last resort, a surgeon can effectively destroy the inner ear—either by directly damaging the end organs or by cutting the eighth cranial nerve fibers, which carry vestibular information to the brain. The latter surgery involves removing a portion of the skull and shifting the brain sideways, so it is not for the faint of heart. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 19886 - Posted: 07.28.2014
by Claudia Caruana GOT that ringing in your ears? Tinnitus, the debilitating condition that plagued Beethoven and Darwin, affects roughly 10 per cent of the world's population, including 30 million people in the US alone. Now, a device based on vagus nerve stimulation promises to eliminate the sounds for good by retraining the brain. At the moment, many chronic sufferers turn to state of the art hearing aids configured to play specific tones meant to cancel out the tinnitus. But these do not always work because they just mask the noise. The new device, developed by MicroTransponder in Dallas, Texas, works in an entirely different way. The Serenity System uses a transmitter connected to the vagus nerve in the neck – the vagus nerve connects the brain to many of the body's organs. The thinking goes that most cases of chronic tinnitus result from changes in the signals sent from the ear to neurons in the brain's auditory cortex. This device is meant to retrain those neurons to forget the annoying noise. To use the system, a person wears headphones and listens to computer-generated sounds. First, they listen to tones that trigger the tinnitus before being played different frequencies close to the problematic one. Meanwhile, the implant stimulates the vagus nerve with small pulses. The pulses trigger the release of chemicals that increase the brain's ability to reconfigure itself. The process has already worked in rats (Nature, doi.org/b63kt9) and in a small human trial this year, where it helped around half of the participants. "Vagus nerve stimulation takes advantage of the brain's neuroplasticity – the ability to reconfigure itself," says Michael Kilgard at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a consultant to MicroTransponder. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Helen Thomson How do you smell after a drink? Quite well, it turns out. A modest amount of alcohol boosts your sense of smell. It is well known that we can improve our sense of smell through practice. But a few people have also experienced a boost after drug use or brain damage. This suggests our sensitivity to smell may be damped by some sort of inhibition in the brain, which can be lifted under some circumstances, says Yaara Endevelt of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. To explore this notion, Endevelt and her colleagues investigated whether drinking alcohol – known to lower inhibitory signals in the brain – affected the sense of smell. In one odour-discrimination test, 20 volunteers were asked to smell three different liquids. Two were a mixture of the same six odours, the third contained a similar mixture with one odour replaced. Each volunteer was given 2 seconds to smell each of the liquids and say which was the odd one out. The test was repeated six times with each of three trios of liquids. They were then given a drink that consisted of 35 millilitres of vodka and sweetened grape juice, or the juice alone, before repeating the experiment with the same set of liquids. In a second experiment with a similar drinking structure, the same volunteers were asked which of three liquids had a rose-like odour. The researchers increased the concentration of the odour until the volunteers got the right answer three times in a row. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19875 - Posted: 07.24.2014
By Virginia Morell Dogs, most of us think, have the best noses on the planet. But a new study reveals that this honor actually goes to elephants. The power of a mammal’s sniffer hinges on the number and type of its olfactory receptor genes. These genes are expressed in sensory cells that line the nasal cavity and are specialized for detecting odor molecules. When triggered, they set off a cascade of signals from the nose to the brain, enabling an animal to identify a particular smell. In the new study, scientists identified and examined olfactory receptor genes from 13 mammalian species. The researchers found that every species has a highly unique variety of such genes: Of the 10,000 functioning olfactory receptor genes the team studied, only three are shared among the 13 species. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the length of its trunk, the African elephant has the largest number of such genes—nearly 2000, the scientists report online today in the Genome Research. In contrast, dogs have only 1000, and humans and chimpanzees, less than 400—possibly because higher primates rely more on their vision and less on their sense of smell. The discovery fits with another recent study showing that Asian elephants are as good as mice (which have nearly 1300 olfactory receptor genes) at discriminating between odors; dogs and elephants have yet to be put to a nose-to-trunk sniffer test. Other research has also shown just how important a superior sense of smell is to the behemoths. A slight whiff is all that’s necessary, for instance, for elephants, such as those in the photo above, to distinguish between two Kenyan ethnic groups—the Maasai, who sometimes spear them, and the Kamba, who rarely pose a threat. They can also recognize as many as 30 different family members from cues in their urine. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19868 - Posted: 07.23.2014
By PETER ANDREY SMITH Sweet, salty, sour and bitter — every schoolchild knows these are the building blocks of taste. Our delight in every scrumptious bonbon, every sizzling hot dog, derives in part from the tongue’s ability to recognize and signal just four types of taste. But are there really just four? Over the last decade, research challenging the notion has been piling up. Today, savory, also called umami, is widely recognized as a basic taste, the fifth. And now other candidates, perhaps as many as 10 or 20, are jockeying for entry into this exclusive club. “What started off as a challenge to the pantheon of basic tastes has now opened up, so that the whole question is whether taste is even limited to a very small number of primaries,” said Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. Taste plays an intrinsic role as a chemical-sensing system for helping us find what is nutritious (stimulatory) and as a defense against what is poison (aversive). When we put food in our mouths, chemicals slip over taste buds planted into the tongue and palate. As they respond, we are thrilled or repulsed by what we’re eating. But the body’s reaction may not always be a conscious one. In the late 1980s, in a windowless laboratory at Brooklyn College, the psychologist Anthony Sclafani was investigating the attractive power of sweets. His lab rats loved Polycose, a maltodextrin powder, even preferring it to sugar. That was puzzling for two reasons: Maltodextrin is rarely found in plants that rats might feed on naturally, and when human subjects tried it, the stuff had no obvious taste. More than a decade later, a team of exercise scientists discovered that maltodextrin improved athletic performance — even when the tasteless additive was swished around in the mouth and spit back out. Our tongues report nothing; our brains, it seems, sense the incoming energy. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19867 - Posted: 07.22.2014
|By Roni Jacobson Last week, nine-year-old Hally Yust died after contracting a rare brain-eating amoeba infection while swimming near her family’s home in Kansas. The organism responsible, Naegleria fowleri, dwells in warm freshwater lakes and rivers and usually targets children and young adults. Once in the brain it causes a swelling called primary meningoencephalitis. The infection is almost universally fatal: it kills more than 97 percent of its victims within days. Although deadly, infections are exceedingly uncommon—there were only 34 reported in the U.S. during the past 10 years—but evidence suggests they may be increasing. Prior to 2010 more than half of cases came from Florida, Texas and other southern states. Since then, however, infections have popped up as far north as Minnesota. “We’re seeing it in states where we hadn’t seen cases before,” says Jennifer Cope, an epidemiologist and expert in amoeba infections at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The expanding range of Naegleria infections could potentially be related to climate change, she adds, as the organism thrives in warmer temperatures. “It’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on.” Still, “when it comes to Naegleria there’s a lot we don’t know,” Cope says—including why it chooses its victims. The amoeba has strategies to evade the immune system, and treatment options are meager partly because of how fast the infection progresses. But research suggests that the infectioncan be stopped if it is caught soon enough. So what happens during an N. fowleri infection? © 2014 Scientific American
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19855 - Posted: 07.21.2014
By Virginia Morell Many moth species sing courtship songs, and until now, scientists knew of only two types of such melodies. Some species imitate attacking bats, causing a female to freeze in place, whereas others croon tunes that directly woo the ladies. But the male yellow peach moth (Conogethes punctiferalis, pictured) belts out a combination song, scientists report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. These tiny troubadours, which are found throughout Asia, emit ultrasonic refrains composed of short and long pulses by contracting their abdominal tymbals, sound-producing membranes. (Listen to a male’s courtship song above.) The short pulses, the scientists say, are similar to the hunting calls of insectivorous horseshoe bats. However, unlike other moth species, these males aren’t directing the batlike tunes at females, but rather at rival males. Using playback experiments, the scientists showed that a male drives away competitors with the short pulses of his ditty, while inducing a female to mate with the long note. Indeed, a receptive virgin female moth (1 to 3 days old) typically raises her wings after hearing this part of the male’s song—a sign that she accepts the male, the scientists say. It is thus the first moth species known to have a dual-purpose melody. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Philip Ball Lead guitarists usually get to play the flashy solos while the bass player gets only to plod to the beat. But this seeming injustice could have been determined by the physiology of hearing. Research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1 suggests that people’s perception of timing in music is more acute for lower-pitched notes. Psychologist Laurel Trainor of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and her colleagues say that their findings explain why in the music of many cultures the rhythm is carried by low-pitched instruments while the melody tends to be taken by the highest pitched. This is as true for the low-pitched percussive rhythms of Indian classical music and Indonesian gamelan as it is for the walking double bass of a jazz ensemble or the left-hand part of a Mozart piano sonata. Earlier studies2 have shown that people have better pitch discrimination for higher notes — a reason, perhaps, that saxophonists and lead guitarists often have solos at a squealing register. It now seems that rhythm works best at the other end of the scale. Trainor and colleagues used the technique of electroencephalography (EEG) — electrical sensors placed on the scalp — to monitor the brain signals of people listening to streams of two simultaneous piano notes, one high-pitched and the other low-pitched, at equally spaced time intervals. Occasionally, one of the two notes was played slightly earlier, by just 50 milliseconds. The researchers studied the EEG recordings for signs that the listeners had noticed. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
Link ID: 19776 - Posted: 07.01.2014