Brain Stethoscope Turns Seizures Into Music

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What started out as an artistic pursuit quickly turned into a scientific purpose as two professors from Stanford University realized their musical recordings of brain activity could be used to identify seizures.

Using electrodes to tap electrical activity in patients’ brains, music professor Chris Chafe and neurology professor Josef Parvizi were able to create audio electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of both normal brain activity and a seizure state. The electrical spikes of rapidly firing neurons were set to music, specifically to a tone that resembled a human voice, as a way for listeners to not only empathize with the patient, but to have a better understanding of what happens to the brain during a seizure.

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During the state of seizure, the tones become more pronounced and their tempo becomes chaotic “We could instantly differentiate seizure activity from non-seizure states with just our ears,” Chafe said in a university news release. “It was like turning a radio dial from a static-filled station to a clear one.”

Since some seizures can occur without any immediate, behavioral symptoms, Chafe and Parvizi got an idea: What if this real time brain data could be used by caregivers for people with epilepsy to hear and recognize when undetected seizures are happening?

“Someone — perhaps a mother caring for a child — who hasn’t received training in interpreting visual EEGs can hear the seizure rhythms and easily appreciate that there is a pathological brain phenomenon taking place,” Parvizi said.

While the duo’s so-called “brain stethoscope” shows real promise, it’s a ways off from becoming a clinical reality. “We’ve really just stuck our finger in there,” Chafe said. “We know that the music is fascinating and that we can hear important dynamics, but there are still wonderful revelations to be made.”

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Chafe and Parvizi plan to launch a version of the brain stethoscope next year at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, where visitors will be able to try out the device. In the meantime, have a listen to the their haunting debut recording.

via Standford News Service