WEDNESDAY, March 12, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Inheriting certain
inner-ear genes may make for top-notch musical chops.
A study by Finnish scientists suggests that the genes that
influence the structure of auditory pathways -- the structures that
form the inner ear -- may play a significant role in musical
"It's very interesting that they identified genetic regions that may be associated with brain mechanisms involved in the abilities to perceive, appreciate and perhaps even perform music," said Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But "there is a lot of intervening, messy biology between these
genetic differences and the ultimate traits that fascinate us all,
and are associated with musical genius," added Bilder, who is also
chief of medical psychology-neuropsychology at UCLA's Semel
Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
The aim of the study was to identify variations in genes linked
with sensory perception, said authors Irma Jarvela and colleagues
at the University of Helsinki. They analyzed the genomes of 76
families for a total of 767 people between the ages of 7 and 94
years old (41 percent male). Fifteen of the families were selected
for the study because they included professional musicians.
In addition to genetic testing, the participants were asked to
take three musical aptitude tests that measured a person's ability
to perceive perfect pitch, for example.
The researchers reported that the "best-linked and associated
regions of the genome were largely on chromosome 4, and are mostly
genes associated with the auditory pathway," according to a journal
The auditory pathway includes the cochlea. Sounds are recognized
by cochlear cells in the inner ear and transmitted as electronic
signals through the auditory nerve to the brain. MRI studies show
that numerous areas of the brain are active during music
The study findings were published online March 11 in the journal
Bilder, who was not involved in the study, said other factors
are involved in extraordinary creativity, including a high musical
"In this study, they've really focused on auditory perception, and I think the ability to appreciate tone and rhythm and musical patterns is critically important. But there are so many other factors involved in exceptional levels of ability and achievement -- a range of personality factors and other cognitive factors that are almost certainly critical," Bilder said.
He says they're called "Big C" factors, such as personality
characteristics like openness to new experiences. "People who have
higher levels of creative achievement tend to have lower levels of
agreeableness. They tend to be people who don't just accept the
status quo," he said. Persistence, the desire to work and work
until they get it right, is another quality of highly creative
Another expert pointed out other influences on musical
"There are a lot of environmental factors that may come into play, too," said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, in Great Neck, N.Y., such as being exposed to music as a child, or playing an instrument from an early age.
Borenstein said other genes are involved, too. "Musical ability
isn't based on one gene like eye color. It isn't blue or brown.
It's a complex set of genes of which they studied a few associated
with musical aptitude."
UCLA's Bilder said, "The way to appreciate this study is to see
this as one piece in a very complicated puzzle." He believes
further research focused on exceptional creativity may help confirm
and extend these findings.
UCLA's Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity has more
science behind creativity.
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