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Williams Syndrome, the Brain, and Music

Children with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, just love music and will spend hours listening to or making music. Despite averaging an IQ score of 60, many possess// a great memory for songs, an uncanny sense of rhythm, and the kind of auditory acuity, than can discern differences between different vacuum cleaner brands.

A study by a multi-institutional collaboration of scientists, published in a forthcoming issue of NeuroImage, identified structural abnormalities in a certain brain area of people afflicted with Williams syndrome. This might explain their heightened interest in music and, in some cases, savant-like musical skill.

Professor Ursula Bellugi, director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies –the central hub of this unique scientific alliance– explains, “Understanding the connections between missing genes, the resulting changes in brain structure and function, and ultimately behavior may help us to reveal how the brain works.”

The current study is just the latest chapter in a story that’s been unfolding for quite some time –gaining increasing momentum in recent years. It all started when Bellugi reached out across disciplines and assembled a team of experts under the umbrella of a Program Project from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development to help her trace the influence of individual genes on the development and functioning of the brain.

Along with co-author Albert Galaburda, a professor at the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Neurology, Professor Allan L. Reiss, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford University and senior author of the current study, focuses on the overall morphology of the brain, zooming in on the cellular architecture of the brain. Molecular geneticist Julie R. Korenberg, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UCLA, digs even deeper and studies the g
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