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March 6, 2020

Weekend reads: Researchers gain insight into how the brain processes music and lyrics

Daily Briefing

    Ben Palmer's reads

    How does your brain separate music and lyrics? Songs combine speech with music, yet the brain is able to separate the lyrics of a song from the music, and a new report published in Science sheds light on how. Researchers from McGill University have learned that two sides of the brain simultaneously process lyrics and music. According to Robert Zatorre, a professor at McGill's Montreal Neurological Institute, "On the left side you can decode the speech content but not the melodic content, and on the right side you can decode the melodic content but not the speech content." To learn this, researchers, assisted by a composer and soprano, composed a series of short a cappella songs, then altered the recordings to effectively remove the melody. They then played the recordings for 49 people in an fMRI scanner and monitored brain activity. Zatorre said, when we hear a song, both hemispheres of the brain are engaged in a way unique from speech or music alone. "That might be why [songs are] especially prominent and especially meaningful" around the world, he said.

    Could moderate drinking be good for your brain? Moderate consumption of alcohol could reduce levels of beta amyloid, the protein associated with Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine. For the study, researchers looked at 414 men and women who were on average 71 years old and free of both dementia and alcohol-related disorders. The researchers then had some of the participants consume "standard drinks," including 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. They found that, compared with those who abstained from alcohol, people who drank one to 13 standard drinks per week were associated with lower beta amyloid deposits. These findings only applied to people who drank moderately for decades as opposed to those who started drinking moderately recently. Dong Young Lee, professor of psychiatry at Seoul National University College of Medicine and senior author on the study, cautioned that the results did not prove cause and effect, but said "moderate drinking appears to be helpful as far as brain health is concerned" among people without dementia or alcohol-related disorders.

    Danielle Poindexter's reads

    The 'world's worst cat' has been adopted. In January, we met Perdita, a four-year-old cat whom staff at Mitchell County Animal Rescue in North Carolina dubbed "a jerk." Staff were so worried that Perdita's bad attitude would make it difficult to find her a family, they decided to warn potential adopters by advertising her as the "World's Worst Cat." Soon, the ads went viral and Perdita caught the eye of a couple from Tennessee. "We had an instant connection to her and her to us as well," said Betty Samimi, one of Perdita's new owners. The couple soon adopted Perdita and gave her a new name, Noel. According to Samimi while "some days [are] better than others," Noel has been "very lovable" and playful. She's also bonding with the other cat in the house. Amber Lowery, executive director of Mitchell County Animal Rescue, said they wanted the ad to set up realistic expectations for Perdita's potential new owners. "We… knew that whoever took her was going to have to be a real cat person," she said. "She really is a joy and our wish for her is to have a long and happy life."

    Costco customers are emptying the shelves amid coronavirus panic. Costco stores around the country are running out of essentials as shoppers rush to panic-buy toilet paper and bottled water to prepare for potential coronavirus outbreaks in their communities. A Costco in Victorville, California, on Wednesday ran out of bottled water at 10:30 a.m.—just 30 minutes after it had opened. Toilet paper, paper towels, bleach, and cup of noodles also sold out before noon that day. One person said almost 900 people had visited the store within the first hour it opened, which is comparable to the crowds during Christmas. One Twitter user named Jim Lundgren recorded a video of "insan[e]" lines at a Costco in Seattle just 45 minutes after opening on Monday. Other pictures show a Costco in New York with empty shelves. Market analysists said Costco's stock has already increased by more than 9% this year due to the virus.

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