Thanks to synaptic music we can ‘hear’ how neurons interact with each other. This is how fascinating the work of the researcher is, who has managed to transcribe the brain’s synapse as electronic music. Has the time come for the ‘neurotechno’ to become fashionable?
The researcher Simon (e) Sun. works in the Tsien laboratory, belonging to the Neuroscience department of the Langone Health center in New York (United States). There it spend the day between Petri dishes and synthesizers, imagining combinations between two worlds not as far apart as it may seem.
The idea of turning a data series into music is not a new proposition, but Sun’s work takes it to another level. Not only because of the interest in being able to ‘hear’ the synapse in the brain; also for the possible medical applications that it would bring. Between them, help better understand autism and improve brain-computer interfaces.
Searching for the chords of synaptic music
Synapse comes from the Greek ‘σύναψις’ and means “union” or “link”. In our case, define an intercellular approach specialized between neurons. The transmission of the nerve impulse begins a chemical discharge that causes an electrical current in the emitting cell (presynaptic). To explain it in a very simple way, this is how they ‘talk’ to each other.
Sun’s work begins by isolating mouse neurons in a Petri dish. His weapons: microscope, stabilizing drugs, pipette and a device that allows him to ‘blow’ on the plate. So is able to simulate brain micro-processes in the laboratory. That is, the language of neurons.
For its study it is essential to understand the synaptic plasticity (homeostatic plasticity in English). Thanks to it, neurons modulate the perception of incoming and outgoing stimuli. This, which would come to be something close to the volume of your guitar amp, allows to maintain the synaptic base for learning, breathing and locomotion.
What does synaptic music sound like, the brain’s ‘neurotechno’
The most curious part of Sun’s job is how science connects with art. More specifically, data with music. Electromagnetic changes are recorded on a voltage scale. In a way it is equivalent to the analog process of bringing a microphone closer to a voice or an acoustic guitar.
In this way Sun ‘listens’ to the synapse and turns the behavior of neurons into a kind of score. In the final part of the process dump the data into a musical interface and select which MIDI instrument will ‘put voice’ to neurons. The result is surprising, a kind of ambient and ethereal electronics that undoubtedly go well with the feeling of the project.
There is no doubt that the musical aspect this project is serious. With the nickname SÉN, Simón (e) Sun has already published several works, like the singles ‘Exist’ and ‘EP SC’ (2018) and the EP ‘DATA_EP’ (2020). They are available for listening on all music distribution platforms.
Other crazy science projects that have turned data into music
Sun is by no means the first person to consider producing music from data obtained during an experiment. It has always been said that music is pure math. Furthermore, at the risk of provoking anger, a score is, in essence, the interpretation of a spreadsheet.
Another representative of this lineage of musicians clad in lab coats is Mark Ballora. An expert in music technology at the University of Pennsylvania (United States), he has been transforming data, such as that extracted from a neutron star, into music for two decades. One of his latest projects, a grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, is to help biologists putting a soundtrack to the depths of the ocean.
The possibilities are endless as long as there is free access to data. For example, the Forrest Mims is full of amazing proposals such as turning the rings of a tree into sound or cosmic rays recorded during a transatlantic flight to Zurich, Switzerland.
Practical medical applications for synaptic music
Returning to Sun’s initiative, his project seeks to be useful beyond giving us ears. According to the researcher, the idea that there is a relationship between autism and synaptic plasticity. That could be one of the most important applications.
Another possibility that he cites in his interview with ‘Verge Science’ it is create custom audios to treat epilepsy. There are preliminary studies that state that a specific rhythm for each patient could help to keep calm and improve breathing.
Advances could also serve to improve neural interfaces. This field is one of those that is benefiting from more funding, both public and private. Just remember that we are waiting to know if the monkey Pager from Elon Musk’s Neuralink program will accept the challenge of fighting Nathan Copeland in a game of ‘pong’.
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