A large international team of researchers has discovered 69 unique genetic variants linked to the ability to keep time in rhythm. In their article published in the journal Nature Human behaviorthe group describes their genetic study involving more than 600,000 volunteers.
Most humans have the ability to keep up with a beat – clapping in sync with the drummer on a rock song, for example. But some people don’t have that ability. In this new effort, the researchers wondered if there were genes responsible for the ability to keep a beat, suggesting that genetic variations could explain those who couldn’t keep time. To find out, they started by asking a large group of volunteers the simple question: “Can you clap along with a musical beat?” 91.57% of the 606,825 volunteers answered yes. They also asked some volunteers to participate in rhythm measurement experiments, such as hitting a key on a keyboard in time to a song. The researchers noted that volunteers who answered yes to the main question achieved higher scores in such experiments.
The researchers then conducted a large-scale genome-wide association study (GWAS) on the volunteers aimed at identifying loci associated with time maintenance. They found 69 genes involved in beat synchronization that differed between those that could keep a beat and those that couldn’t. They also found that the VRK2 gene appeared to be the most significant. And they found that volunteers who identified as the musicians tended to have more variations, suggesting that variations could go either way, giving people a better idea of a beat or a worse one. Previous research has also found links between people with VRK2 variants and several types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and chronic depression.
The researchers also found that other Genoa besides those needed to recognize the rhythm of a beat are involved in maintaining a rhythm, such as walking rhythm, respiratory flow, and the processing speed of certain parts of the brain. They also suggest that the ability to keep a rhythm could be linked to childhood speech development and social interactions.
Maria Niarchou et al, Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity, Nature Human behavior (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x
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