Dr. Nina Kraus Interview

By David Graykowski

The sounds of our lives shape who we are. Your mother’s voice, a Mozart symphony, a friend’s yell on the playground. “Making sense of sound is essential for survival and it is computationally one of the hardest things we ask our brains to do” (Kraus, 2015).

Dr. Nina Kraus is a professor of neurobiology and otolaryngology (study of diseases of the ear and throat) and holds the Hugh Knowles chair at Northwestern University. Dr. Kraus studies sound and the biological origin of auditory learning. Dr. Kraus has discovered a biomarker for detecting and diagnosing concussions using sound. She has also studied how sound plays a role in auditory development and ultimately our success in the classroom and life. Dr. Nina Kraus’s research leans heavily on music and the importance of music participation and music education.

I recently sat down with Dr. Nina Kraus to talk about her research on music and concussions, and what advancements she hopes to see in the future of sound.

*This interview has been condensed for ease of comprehension*

David:

Hello Dr. Kraus, first and foremost, thank you for agreeing to talk about your work with me!

Dr. Kraus:

My pleasure!

David:

Could you give us a quick overview of the research you conduct at Northwestern?

Dr. Kraus:

Well, overall, we look at sound processing in the brain. We examine how the brain makes sense of sound and how different forms of experience affect sound processing.

David:

As a researcher, you have shed light on an important biomarker for concussions, ultimately adding an important piece to the puzzle in the diagnostic process and tracking of brain injuries. Could you give a quick rundown on why concussions are of interest in your work and what this new technology is and what it does?

Dr. Kraus:

When people get a concussion, there is considerable difficulty in quickly figuring out how injured an athlete is. Also, it is important to be able to understand how the athlete is getting better and recovering over time. Currently, there isn’t a standard treatment for concussions and likely different treatments are going to work for different people. Having an objective biomarker that can give you indications of how a treatment is working for a particular individual is helpful.

Importantly, our brain’s ability to make sense of sound is one of the hardest jobs we ask our brain to do because important information in sound happens very quickly (in microseconds), and the neurons in your brain have to make very precise and very rapid computations. Sound processing in the brain is an intricate, delicate, and precise machinery and taking a hit to the head is likely going to disrupt that.

So we have been able to look at athletes of various ages who have sustained concussions. These include youth and professional athletes, and Northwestern’s football team for the past two years. We have just secured a grant from the National Institute of Health to fund a five-year study where we are testing all of Northwestern’s athletes, both males and females, in high and low contact sports. All athletes are tested before and after their sport season. If an athlete sustains a concussion any time during the season they get tested immediately after they have sustained the concussion and then in weekly intervals until even after they are cleared to return to play.

David:

Is the end goal of this study to try and make this method of detection a global protocol?

Dr. Kraus:

Yes, I think it would be helpful. There is a need for objective information and so the hope is that this could one day become a standard of care. Importantly, in our method the athlete does not have to actively participate in obtaining the measure, which maintains objectivity. Essentially what happens is that the athlete listens to sounds and while sensors are placed on the scalp that measure the electricity from the brain. The currency of the nervous system is electricity and we can measure that electricity to see how good a job the brain is doing at processing the sounds we are playing.

David:

Given the fairly recent news of NFL (National Football League) players suffering different symptoms as a result of repeat concussions (CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), do you have any plans on researching a possible correlation between CTE and its possible resulting auditory repercussions?

Dr. Kraus:

CTE can really only be diagnosed at death. It would be wonderful to have a biological measure that can give us an index of an athlete’s health while they are alive.

David:

Like a way of tracking the pathophysiology (progression of a disease) of the injury?

Dr. Kraus:

Absolutely! So, if an athlete is playing a sport that might put them at risk, whether they are getting a number of concussions or a number of sub-concussive injuries, these athletes can be tracked over time. Is their brain health stable or is there a change?

David:

Do you see any other potential uses of this diagnostic test? Due to certain similarities between concussions and neurodegenerative disorders, do you see any potential for crossover to use this technology to detect other disorders (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s)?

Nina:

Well, I certainly cannot exclude that this can be a biological marker for health in other diseases. In fact, we have been doing some work with HIV positive individuals and again we are able to see that there can be a disruption in the sound processing mechanism in these individuals. There are a number of other disorders that are especially based in sound, like language disorders, Autism, dyslexia, reading and language delays. These are all disorders that can arise from the brain’s ability to make sense of sound.

David:

While you have found ways to uncover and diagnose concussions using sound, is there any way that sound could heal and be used as a treatment?

Dr. Kraus:

Well, there certainly is potential. This is something that over time I think we need to understand better, along with what kind of therapies might be helpful. For example, researchers have shown that playing certain computer-based rhythm games, like a game called Interactive Metronome, gives the participant feedback as to how reliably they are able to synchronize with a sound in order to improve that skill. The participant is given feedback, either in the form of visual information or other sounds that help them get better at coordinating their rhythm skills. Rhythm is fundamental to neurologic function, there are brain rhythms, there are sound rhythms, and there is certainly rhythm in language.

David:

Do you have to physically play an instrument in order to reap the same rewards? Or can simply listening to music and being immersed in sonic bliss promote the same benefits?

Dr. Kraus:

Certain fundamental changes in your biology can only occur if you play a musical instrument. I like to say you’re not going to get physically fit watching sports.

David:

And if you do play an instrument do you have to be constantly practicing or play at a really high level?

Dr. Kraus:

No! That’s part of the beauty. You just have to be musically engaged, you don’t have to be a professional, you don’t even have to be that good, people who just regularly play can benefit. Obviously the more you play, the stronger the benefits, but just knowing and making music is something that can help the nervous system become better tuned to the sounds around us.

David:

And is this age-dependent? Could someone who is 55-years old and never picked up a musical instrument still benefit from playing music?

Dr. Kraus:

A 55-years old is not the same as they were when they were five. That said, even though the nervous system is different, the basic principle that making music can enhance your ability to make sense of sound and help sound processing in the brain is still true. It does not matter how old you are when you play your instrument. These are benefits you can see across the lifespan.

David:

Switching gears, I know your research also focuses quite a bit on education and what makes music such a vital aspect of childhood development. Given the fleeting funding for the arts in schools, and the importance of musical training on the developing mind, if you were able to stand up to the officials who make the school budgets and attempt to convince them to increase and maintain music funding in our schools, what would you say?

Dr. Kraus:

That’s easy. As a scientist, I approach it from a scientific perspective. There are a number of published studies in the world’s best journals from groups worldwide, including from our own lab which we call Brainvolts at Northwestern University, that show enhancements of brain function as children engage in playing a musical instrument. These enhancements are tied to language development and reading ability. In other words, playing music affects important aspects of being human, of being able to communicate.

To be practical, outcomes of communication and language ability in children are critical to their success as adults. Their ability to hear speech in noisy environments, like a noisy playground or a cafeteria, are critical to their making sense of what’s going on around them and being able to engage with the world. There is a wealth of scientific evidence showing this. I think that one of the problems that has faced music education is that, even when it is available, it is targeted to those who really take it seriously and join the band or the orchestra. Truly, some form of music education, the science would suggest, is beneficial for every child.

David:

Given this information, how do you think music can impact the lives of children who suffer from some sort of learning disorder? Can music positively impact kids who have problems reading or any other learning disorders?

Dr. Kraus:

Yes, so again there has been quite a bit or work showing that if you have a language or reading disorder, it actually turns out, these individuals often have trouble with rhythm skills. So teaching those, either in targeted rhythm tasks or through music is something that can help those disorders. Music therapists have worked with kids on the Autism spectrum to use music as a way to engage children into a musical conversation.

David:

Excellent! Lastly, what are the next steps in the study of sound? What are some future studies you plan on conducting in the Brain Volts lab?

Dr. Kraus:

Well, big focus right now is on the concussion work and we have a lot of work to do. We must understand the neural “signature” of concussion and how it evolves over time in individual athletes. This is something we are only going to be able to see as we do longitudinal studies in males and females playing various sports.

To my mind, there is so much converging scientific evidence that is telling us that putting resources into both physical and musical education can lead to healthier and more engaged individuals.

David:

Thank you for your time and consideration Dr. Kraus and thank you for the work that you do.

Dr. Kraus:

Thank you!

Please visit Dr. Kraus’s website www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu for more information on the amazing work she does at Northwestern. Her website provides a comprehensive and educational overview of all the research she does as well as links to publications and ways you can get involved.

Dr. Kraus will be speaking at a free event held by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology entitled “Head Banging: How Music and Concussions Impact Brain Health” on September 25th, 2018 at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago, Illinois. https://www.c2st.org/about/