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Biologists, physicists, and music technology researchers have worked together to try something new: influencing cells through music.
Biologists, physicists, and music technology researchers have worked together to try something new: influencing cells through music.

From music to medicine: How sound influences cell behaviour

New research suggests that music can affect cells. The results may be a first step towards using music in the treatment of diabetes.

If you have diabetes, the cells in the pancreas are unable to produce insulin.

The body needs insulin to regulate blood sugar. Currently, efforts are being made in labs worldwide to create insulin-producing cells from human induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (hiPSCs) that can replace insulin supplements.

One of these research environments was the ABINO project, where biologists, physicists, and music technology researchers have worked together to enter the field from a new angle: influencing cells through music.

Friday 24 November, Dongho Kwak defended his dissertation Music for cells? Rhythmic mechanical stimulations of cell cultures. The defence was recorded and can be watched here.
Friday 24 November, Dongho Kwak defended his dissertation Music for cells? Rhythmic mechanical stimulations of cell cultures. The defence was recorded and can be watched here.

Researcher Dongho Kwak practically had to start from scratch when he began his PhD as part of the project. He had a background in audio technology and, as an orchestral flautist, he knew that sound can affect the body to some extent. But when he was to go down to the cellular level, there wasn't much other research to draw from.

There had been some former attempts to stimulate cells with sound, but there was a lack of systematic research.

Rhythms are essential in biology

“I was curious as to whether I could shape a sound relevant to living cells. The fact that cells can sense sound at all was not obvious,” Kwak says. He is a research fellow at the RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion at the University of Oslo.

He had to work systematically, he explains. 

“Basically, you can take any piece of music and play it for the cells in the lab. However, the analysis can be a bit difficult. Music has complex structures; it has many different elements, such as melody, harmony, and rhythm. It can be difficult to say precisely what affects the cells,” he says.

He delved into research on physiological systems. In the academic book Rhythms in Physiological Systems from 1991, he found an interesting statement in the introduction: “Rhythms are a basic phenomenon in all physiological systems.”

“The authors illustrated that rhythm has a fundamental function in critical parts of the physiology, such as cardiovascular, respiratory, and motor systems. For music, it's the same, because, what is music without rhythm?”

Sound affected the cells 

Kwak divided the cells into four groups: One group was exposed to a steady rhythm for 15 minutes, the second to an irregular rhythm, the third to a continuous sound, while the fourth was a control group with no sound.

Afterwards, he studied the cells’ filaments. These are skeleton-like structures in the cells partly made of thin, long threads, and they are sensitive to external influences.

“In our published work, we have preliminarily concluded that the filament structures have shrunk after being exposed to sound. They had become shorter. The effect was strongest for the cells that had been exposed to a continuous sound. Perhaps the continuous sound was causing the most stress,” Kwak says. 

The results are published in the journal Bioengineering. Kwak describes them as a milestone. More research is required in order to establish a secure link between rhythm and cell behaviour, he explains.

The study may open new ways to experiment with cells

The changes the researchers observed in the sound-exposed cells do not imply that music is good or bad for cells, Kwak emphasises.

“It only suggests that cells respond to rhythmic sounds in an interesting way, which gives researchers something to work on. It could be that cells would respond to different pitches and varying intensities as well, but we do not know that yet,” he says.

Professor Alexander Refsum Jensenius is the head of the RITMO Centre and one of the initiators of the research project Kwak has been working on.

“The fact that rhythmic sound actually seems to affect the cells is incredibly interesting. Usually, cell researchers need plenty of chemicals to stimulate cells. If it's possible to stimulate cells using vibration, such as sound, it could lead to new ways of experimenting with cells,” Jensenius says.

A need for robust protocols

The idea behind the ABINO project arose when Jensenius happened to sit next to cell researcher Hanne Scholz  at the Faculty of Medicine during a dinner. Scholz had heard lab people talk about music in the lab seemingly affecting cells. Could it be true? Scholz wondered. She has led the ABINO project.

The team hopes the method established in the project will inspire further research on how cells respond to rhythm. It may be one step towards being able to create insulin-producing cells that can be administered to people as stem cells. This is still a long shot, according to Jensenius.

“However, if we are to get there, we need robust protocols, meaning methods. Finding new ways of cultivating cells in the lab is definitely of interest,” Alexander Refsum Jensenius says.

Reference:

Kwak et al. Characterization of Mechanical and Cellular Effects of Rhythmic Vertical Vibrations on Adherent Cell Cultures, Bioengineering, 2023. DOI: 10.3390/bioengineering10070811

Kwak et al. Music for cells? A Systematic Review of Studies Investigating the Effects of Audible Sound Played Through Speaker-Based Systems on Cell Cultures, Music & Science, vol. 5, 2022. DOI: 10.1177/20592043221080965

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