Friday, November 5, 2010

AVPR1A: Music in your Genes?

I was totally going to save this Tegan & Sara Tiësto trance song for another post about "feeling the beat" because I thought that a dance song with a chorus about feeling things in your bones would go nicely with a paper about the neuroscience of rhythm and beat perception.

But then I thought that old familiar feeling of having something "in your bones" seemed to go better with a post about that seemingly innate quality that musicians seem to have that enables and even compels them to be creative in music. PLUS Tegan & Sara are identical twins who make music together so they fit even better into a post about families, genes, and musical ability. So now you guys get to listen to this song sooner rather than later.

Tegan & Sara & even Tiësto might be feeling AVPR1A in their genes.

The prize gene finding that came back from the results of Ozzy Osbourne's genome is called AVPR1A. Since scientists love to use nifty acronyms, I'll spell this one out for you. The AVP part stands for arginine vassopressin (or just vassopressin for short). Vassopressin is a hormone that does lots of things in the body, from blood pressure regulation to memory formation to pair bonding. The R1A part of the acronym stands for receptor type 1A, which just tells us the specific type of vassopressin receptor we're talking about, since there are a few different types of vassopressin receptors in the body.

So now that we know what AVPR1A stands for, how does it relate to Ozzyome and the ability to make music? Well, a group of researchers at the University of Helsinki recruited a group of 19 families that had musical relatives studying at a local music school. They gave the individuals in the families different objective tests that measured their ability to recognize musical pitch, timing, and their overall musical ability. The individuals also took a separate questionnaire on their strengths in musical composition, arrangement, and improvising. For the genetic analysis, the scientist took vials of blood from the study subjects to test for certain genes that they thought might be related to cognitive processing, emotional behavior, and creativity. AVPR1A was one of genes of interest.

What were the results? People who answered that they were creative in music (indicating that they arranged, composed, or improvised music) got higher scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So we knew then that these people weren't just saying these things to inflate their egos; they actually had some measurable objective musical ability. The cool part is that the people who did well on these tests of musical ability seemed to be in the same families! The researchers found that there were some families that did well on the tests, and others that didn't do so well.

But the REALLY COOL part is that after all the genetic analysis was done, a strong correlation was found between certain types of the AVPR1A gene and high scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So it wasn't just that some families were more musical than others. Some families were more musical than others AND they found a gene in some members that might be responsible for that increased musical ability!

So that's what Ozzy Osbourne has in common with these high musical aptitude-scoring, musical AVPR1A-variant possessing people. Since he has the same variation of AVPR1A in his genes, he is likely to score as well or better than the individuals in the study on the musical aptitude tests. It almost makes me want to get tested for this gene.

As a side note, if you want to bask in the presence of more people who are likely to have the same version of the AVPR1A gene as Ozzy Osbourne and you're in the Triangle region this weekend, check out the Troika Music Festival to see lots of very talented musicians feeling it in their genes (teehee). This is a shameless plug since my band, Pink Flag, is playing on the last night of the festival. BUT you should go regardless since Troika is always the highlight of Durham (and the Triangle at large)'s music scene. If you come up to me Saturday night and mention AVPR1A I'll probably hug you out of joy that someone actually read my ramblings on here.
Ukkola LT, Onkamo P, Raijas P, Karma K, & Järvelä I (2009). Musical aptitude is associated with AVPR1A-haplotypes. PloS one, 4 (5) PMID: 19461995


  1. Are there other things that are correlated with musical aptitude? And is there such a thing being studied that involves a natural aptitude in other areas, like communicative aptitide, or ability to sing or play the piano (vocal chords, long fingers, etc.)?

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