Ian Dury. Because… any excuse.
One of the best things about starting this blog was several e-mails I got from like-minded people saying nice things, and often, pointing me towards interesting bits of neurobollocks that I wasn’t aware of. Such was a series of e-mails from Deborah Budding and Michael Thaut (who must be one of only a few people in the world who holds posts as Professor of Music, and Professor of Neuroscience – cool) about the ‘interactive metronome’ technique. Michael’s research (unsurprisingly) focuses on the interplay between the brain and music, and in particular, the processing of temporal information as it relates to rhythmicity, so it’s probably fair to say he certainly knows his way around a metronome.
But what’s this interactive metronome business? Well, as you can see in this video on the hypochondriac’s website of choice (WebMD), it’s basically waving your arms about and moving your feet in time to a regular beat. So, it’s basically dancing then, but much more boring.
Surprisingly, given it appears to be such a simple technique, some people are claiming that it can have profound effects, and assist with various disorders such as ADHD, Parkinson’s, MS and even post-brain injury and stroke. The usual bunch of jokers with slickly-designed websites have sprung up offering treatment for all these things and more. The ‘How it works’ section of that website claims that the underlying deficit in a variety of disorders, claiming that the underlying dysfunction in ADHD, autism, dyslexia, Parkinson’s and others is just a ‘neural timing deficit’. The exercises used in IM correct the timing deficit, and therefore (supposedly) treat the disorder.
To say this is startlingly simplistic would be a massive understatement; it’s just plain wrong. The precise neurological issues in many of these disorders are difficult to pin down and are the subject of active investigation but, to take a simple example, we know exactly what the problem is in Parkinson’s; neuronal depletion in the substantia nigra. To claim that it’s some vague neural ‘timing’ issue goes well beyond disingenuousness and into the realm of outright deception.
A PubMed search for ‘interactive metronome adhd’ actually produces five hits! However, on closer inspection, all five articles are seriously compromised in some way – studies with no control group, or with very low numbers. Interestingly, one of the papers that pops up is one I’ve discussed before in reference to Brain Balance Centers. So, IM appears to form a cornerstone of what the Brain Balance guys (chiropractic, with a thin layer of neuro-woo laid on top) are pushing too. The IM guys have gone to a lot of trouble to make their approach appear scientific – there’s a well-populated ‘Science’ section on the website, that contains links to lots of articles, however, many of them are ‘white papers’ of uncertain provenance, and the rest are articles from obscure journals, or on barely relevant topics.
Another problem with IM is that it gets conflated with serious interventions. There’s a large field of study focussed on the use and effectiveness of musical-type interventions for a variety of neurological disorders (broadly, called Neurologic Music Therapy, or NMT) that has some solid research behind it. The slick marketing of IM seeks to conflate their approach with much more high-standard music-based therapy approaches.
In Prof. Thaut’s words (my emphases added):
First, where is the research? Studies that back up the clinical effect of IM directly, are very rare or nonexistent. A small study from 2001 is one that comes up repeatedly. One small study does not build clinical evidence. IM seems in general a well marketed but unresearched application. From a research point I see no evidence for the therapeutic benefit of IM.
Second, brain mechanisms in therapy work differently. Possibly to fill the research void IM generously includes ‘borrowed’ research that has nothing to do with their device. Since I am one of the authors they use I have to clearly state that my brain research in music and rhythm does not address IM and our results do not support IM applications, neither with patients nor physiologically in explanatory brain mechanisms. The only forms of therapy in brain rehabilitation that work are active and specific exercises based on functional learning and training paradigms, not machine tapping.
Last, rhythm has its own life. The claim that tapping to a metronome improves timing in patients which in turn transfers to all kinds of cognitive and motor improvements is not only unsupported by research but seems based on a misunderstanding. Rhythmic synchronization is a very complex process that fluctuates continuously on a millisecond level and is inherently unstable and variable. This time flexibility is the actual hallmark of functional entrainment. Therefore the IM definitions and measurements of what constitutes rhythmic improvement seem physiologically and functionally meaningless.
So, there you have it. If you’re concerned about your child’s sense of rhythm (for some reason?) you’d probably be much better off signing them up for dance classes, or piano lessons. It’ll almost certainly be cheaper, and they’ll likely have a lot more fun too.