New research project taps into the spirit of Christmas
The Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire has teamed up with Qualtrics to develop a game which they hope will give them a greater understanding of some aspects of Parkinson’s disease.
The game “Tap a Tempo”, which can be tried out at www.tapatempo.com, encourages people to tap along to a Christmas jingle and then tasks them with keeping the beat when the music stops. It simply involves tapping on the screen of a phone, or clicking a mouse, for about 30 seconds.
The research team, led by Dr Peter Lovatt, Reader in the Psychology of Dance at the University of Hertfordshire, want tens of thousands of people, young and old, male and female, people with Parkinson’s and people without Parkinson’s, people who love to dance and people who hate to dance, to play Tap a Tempo, because it will give them a normative data set and help them understand how different rhythm and timing processes change as a function of age and other factors. Once they have this large data set they will move on to the second stage of the project.
But what does this tell us about Parkinson’s?
A large body of scientific evidence suggests that when people with Parkinson’s dance to music there is an improvement in a range of symptoms. For example, Dancing has been shown to improve balance (e.g. Hackney, Kantorovich, Levin & Earhart, 2007), cognitive performance (McKee & Hackney, 2014), mood (Lewis et al., 2014), and quality of life (Westheimer, 2008). In another series of studies Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS), that is listening to rhythmic music while you walk, has been shown to lead to improvements in gait (walking) speed and stride length (see Hausdorff, 2009; Nombela et l. 2013; Thaut et al., 1996). It seems to be the case that when people with Parkinson’s move to music with a strong rhythm, either by walking or dancing, the strong rhythm provides a timing cue for movements, which is helpful for executing certain movements. There is some overlap in the neurobiology of timing processes and the areas of the brain affected in Parkinson’s (Avanzino, et al. 2016).
Tap a Tempo taps in to two timing processes in the brain. In the first part of the game people have to tap along to a piece of music. This task involves the perception of rhythm and also a process known as sensorimotor coupling, that is coordinating your movements with an external sensory cue (the beats in the music). In the second part of the game people have to keep tapping at the same rate without any external sensory cue. This means that they must keep time by using an internally generated timing cue. In other words, when people are tapping in silence they have to rely on an internal sense of rhythm. There has been some research which suggests that people with Parkinson’s have difficulties with this second type of timing, that is they find it harder than people without Parkinson’s to maintain an internal sense of rhythm (Jones et al., 2011).
The research team want to understand how people’s rhythm and timing change over time. For example, does timing change across the day, such that its better at some points in the day than others? Do changes in timing affect activities of daily living, such as walking, eating, and interpersonal interaction? Does timing improve after exercise or dancing?
The research team often hear people say things like they find it easier to do the gardening, or walk to the shops, the day after attending a dance or singing session. Perhaps it’s the case that dancing or singing provides a boost to the neurobiological mechanisms supporting internal timing processes and this boost lasts for several hours, or perhaps a few days after the exercise has stopped, and it is this which helps people engage more easily with certain activities (this is just a hypothesis at this stage).
To test these ideas, we want to develop Tap a Tempo so that people can provide rhythm and timing quickly and accurately several times a day, or before and after a dance class or at times when they are either feeling in states of low or high mood. We want to understand how timing varies, and see how such variations in timing are related to a range of symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.