This Week in Research: Broken Heart Syndrome; Music Comes Before Language

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In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

Sigh. It turns out that you really can die of a broken heart. (Or, if you prefer more precise medical terminology, from “stress cardiomyopathy.”)

Here’s how it works:  intense emotional or physical stress (the death of a loved one; a shocking revelation) leads to rapid and severe weakness in the muscles of the heart. So the “broken heart” in question is less a metaphor than a fairly apt description of the body’s panicked response to environmental stimuli it doesn’t know how to process. The symptoms mimic those of a heart attack, although the cause is different:  heart attacks are generally causes by a blockage, while broken heart syndrome happens when a rush of adrenaline stuns the heart and suspends the flow of blood.

According to the Johns Hopkins doctors who are experts in the disease, women in their 60s and 70s are the most vulnerable to this condition, which can be (but isn’t always) fatal. Even though the heart is not permanently damaged,” Dr. Ilan Wittstein explains, “the heart is a pump and if that pump is suddenly stunned and can’t pump, than the whole body isn’t getting the blood flow that it needs, so the sickest examples of broken heart syndrome have been critically ill in the intensive (care) unit.”

And, like your mom always told you, the best cure for a broken heart is time. “Time is simply needed for recovery,” Wittstein says. “Once patients get through the first couple of days, the heart improves on its own.”

Humans talk first and sing later, according to prevailing ideas about language acquisition. After all, song is a fancier, more complex version of speech. Except that, according to new research out of the University of Maryland (and Rice University), it’s actually the other way around:  music is fundamental, and language comes afterward.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” according to lead researcher Anthony Brandt. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

According to Brandt and his co-authors, music is defined as “creative play with sound.” In other words, paying attention to a particular sound’s acoustic features instead of whatever referential content it may convey. According to Brandt, infants start out listening to language’s sounds before they are able to tune into its meaning. “They listen to it not only for its emotional content but also for its rhythmic and phonemic patterns and consistencies. The meaning of words comes later,” Brandt says.

The team’s research indicates that language and music processing abilities develop along very similar timelines, and using similar areas of the brain. For example, in the first months of life, infants can’t distinguish between their own language and foreign languages; similarly, they’re unable to tell the difference between their native musical traditions and foreign music. But at about the same time (12 months), they begin to hone in on sounds that are “native” to their own culture, both musically and linguistically.

Brandt also notes that people with cognitive difficulties with language often have problems with music as well. This may be why music therapy has been shown to be helpful to patients suffering from strokes. “While music and language may be cognitively and neurally distinct in adults, we suggest that language is simply a subset of music from a child’s view,” Brandt said. “We conclude that music merits a central place in our understanding of human development.”

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