Music as medicine? The Sync Project will use big data to study the healing power of melody


You may keep your Taylor Swift obsession hidden from your co-workers, but not from science.

A new research initiative called the Sync Project aims to track how the brain and body respond to music through an app that collects biological data while your favorite jams stream on loop. So when a person plugs in their headphones and heads to work, their activity tracker on their wrist will be able to see how their heart rate changes when Swift’s “Shake It Off” transitions to One Directions’ “Steal My Girl.”
Researchers have gathered preliminary evidence suggesting that music, among the oldest and most enigmatic of human creations, can sometimes quell symptoms of neurological disorders or depression, for example, or increase a person’s tolerance to pain. The goal of the Sync Project, founded by Boston firm PureTech Ventures, is to provide robust evidence for its health effects by studying a lot more people, and a lot more data.

The technology to back such an investigation is ripe, explained Alexis Kopikis, a co-founder of the Sync Project and a partner at PureTech.

Services like Pandora and Spotify have made millions of songs instantly accessible to any subscriber with a smartphone, the same devices that are simultaneously collecting heart rate and body temperature information through wearable trackers. Also, the same music streaming companies are amassing a wealth of information about music tastes and preferences.

“Now is the time to put all of these things together: To figure out what is going on in your body when you listen to this music,” Kopikis said.

These ideas make landfall in the form of an app that anyone with a smartphone will soon be able to download (it is currently being alpha tested). With millions rather than dozens of participants, and vastly more data, the hope is that Sync’s scientist collaborators will arrive at surer answers, to better deploy the power of music to heal.

Because people have very personal tastes in music, a large data set is all the more important, said Ketki Karanam, co-founder of the Sync Project and an associate at PureTech.

The Sync team has assembled a formidable team of advisors. Joi Ito, PureTech board member nad director of the MIT Media Lab is on that list, along with Robert Zatorre, a McGill University neuroscientist who leads one of the biggest labs studying the brain and music, and Tristan Jehan, who founded the music analysis software Echo Nest software that was acquired by Spotify in March last year.

The Sync Project shares a vision with the makers of ResearchKit, a brand-new platform that Apple developed with doctors. That platform allows anyone with a smartphone to enroll in a study through an app on their iPhone, and allows doctors to easily create apps that are tailored to their own investigation, the company announced at a media event this week.

Both ResearchKit and the Sync Project seek to breach the boundaries of traditional research, which are typically episodic sessions in a lab or hospital — to a model that can include millions of participants and reveal a detailed picture of human behavior and responses through the day.

“We were extremely excited to see Apple explain to the world [what we are doing] so we can stop having that conversation,” Kopikis joked.

Kopikis has a personal connection to the Sync Project — his five-year-old has been diagnosed with autism, and music is one of the things that soothes his agitated episodes. If his son was enrolled in a traditional hospital study observing the effect of music on symptoms of autism, he pointed out, the episode would have progressed or retreated by the time he drove his son to the testing room.

The app can currently measure basic electrical activity in the brain using commercially available devices like the Neurosky, which place electrodes on your head, and heart rate information using the Zephyr monitor,which measures activity through a device strapped with an elastic band to your chest. Soon, the team hopes to include the Apple Watch in their suite of tracking apps.



Music as medicine? The Sync Project will use big data to study the healing power of melody