Manhattan plot of GWAS results of beat synchronization. Results of GWAS in N = 606,825 participants with 23andMe. The GWAS phenotype is the participants’ responses of Yes (N = 555,660) versus No (N = 51,165) to the question ‘Can you clap in time with a musical beat?’. The GWAS was performed with logistic regression, controlling for age, sex, the top five principal components for ancestry and genotype platform. The x axis shows chromosomal positions, and the y axis shows −log10 P values of the association between the alleles and the phenotype. Sixty-nine loci (70 sentinel SNPs, with one locus containing two independent sentinel SNPs) surpassed the threshold for genome-wide significance of P Nature Human Behavior (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x
A large international team of researchers has found 69 unique genetic variants linked to the ability to keep time to a beat. In their paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviorthe group describes their genetic study involving more than 600,000 volunteers.
Most human beings have the ability to keep time to a beat—clapping along in sync with the drummer on a rock song, for example. But some people do not have this ability. In this new effort, the researchers wondered if there were genes responsible for the ability to keep a beat, suggesting genetic variations could account for those who could not keep time. To find out, they started by asking a large group of volunteers the simple question: “Can you clap in time with a musical beat?” 91.57% of the 606,825 volunteers responded yes. They also asked some of the volunteers to engage in beat-measuring experiments, such as tapping a key on a keyboard in time to the beat of a song. The researchers noted that those volunteers who answered yes to the main question scored higher on such experiments.
The researchers then conducted a large-scale genome wide association study (GWAS) on the volunteers aimed at identifying the loci associated with keeping time. They found 69 genes involved in beat synchronization that differed from those who could keep a beat and those who could not. They also found that the gene VRK2 appeared to be the most significant. And they found that volunteers who self-identified as musicians tended to have more variants, suggesting variants could go both ways—giving people a better sense of a beat or a worse one. Prior 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 genes besides those that are needed to recognize the timing of a beat are involved in keeping a beat, such as walking pace, respiratory flow and the processing speed of certain parts of the brain. They also suggest the ability to keep a beat might be linked to childhood speech development and social interactions.
Mathematical framework explores how the brain keeps a beat
Maria Niarchou et al, Genome-wide association study of musical beat synchronization demonstrates high polygenicity, Nature Human Behaviour (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01359-x
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