The Galician auditorium is transformed into a laboratory to investigate whether Brahms and Piazzolla alter genes

On the stage are all the seats of the orchestra, the lecterns, the conductor’s platform. The spotlights remain off, and in this also the lamps of the Galician Auditorium in Santiago. The public remains in the dark and also in silence: it is known that the concert begins. But there is no program. Until now, the pieces that make it up have been kept secret. Royal Philharmonic of Galicia (RFG) has rehearsed for the occasion. The scientific team that investigates for the first time in the world The therapeutic effects of music on genes needs everything to be a surprise in order to capture the expressive dance of RNA in a big way. And the first unexpected situation occurs as soon as it begins. A scene spotlight, like a divine ray, illuminates a single chair. Only one trumpeter has come out to play. No trace of the rest of his companions. People wonder what’s going on, expectantly. A delicate thread of violins, violas and cellos sounds, but they are not seen: they are not there. The musician present scratches that harmony throwing a handful of notes into the air and waits for an answer. Then a distorted echo is heard. It is the apparently chaotic replica of other wind instruments, also invisible, that blow from beyond. Beyond the stage. The Philharmonic performs The Unanswered Question (The Unanswered Question), by Charles Ives; disturbing, desolate and sad, dramatically beautiful.

Sensoxenoma22 concert of the Royal Philharmonic of Galicia, on September 30.OSCAR CORRAL

That voice of the trumpet that questions the unanswerable invades the room, puts the heart in a fist and immediately throbs in the blood. And if a sample is taken almost immediately, genomic science can to photograph the molecular imprint of that sensation. The experiment should not last more than an hour so that the effect is not diluted. Just enough so that the entire orchestra, which immediately comes on stage with Baldur Brönnimann as conductor, plays the seven scores chosen to shake the genes of a special audience: people from different parts of Galicia, and also from abroad, who have come to the call of the Philharmonic and the IDIS (Institute of Health Research), which is based in the Complexo Hospitalario Universitario de Santiago (CHUS). Among the donors of genetic material (both blood and saliva samples before and after the concert) there are children and adults, the general public, without diagnosed pathologies, and Alzheimer’s patients, people with Down syndrome, ADHD, autism, cancer or cerebral.

Three weeks after the pair of concerts (September 30 and October 1) attended by some 2,400 people, 800 as donors, and a pilot test carried out on July 14 with Alzheimer’s patients, Antonio Salas, principal investigator of Sensogenome project and professor of Medicine in Santiago, opens on his laptop one of those first Photos: snapshots of the effect of music on the human genome. It looks like a pointillist box in shades of blue and yellow, where the darkest blue indicates little activity of the metabolic pathways (set of genes that act with each other) and the brightest yellow, just the opposite. It is the image of before and after the concert. The comparison between the blood sample taken from the attendees, by an army of more than 200 public health volunteers, an hour and a half before the first chords sound, and the one collected at the exit, a few minutes before the final applause.

Taking blood samples from the attendees, after the Sensoxenoma22 concert held on September 30 at the Galicia Auditorium.
Taking blood samples from the attendees, after the Sensoxenoma22 concert held on September 30 at the Galicia Auditorium.OSCAR CORRAL

In addition to The unanswered question Ives, the surprise program included compositions by Otto Nicolai, Dvořák, Piazzolla, Brahms and Rossini, until reaching the final touch: the Danzón nº2 by Arturo Marquez. In the computer image, what was blue before the audition is now yellow and vice versa. It is like an internal revolt in the organism. But, in addition, the first analyzes have given rise to graphs in which it is seen that there are many genes (of the 300 that are related to music) that are expressed in the opposite way in people with a specific disease and in relatives who They were escorts. Music presses, above all, the keys of the DNA related to knowledge and memory. “This is extremely important in the case of Alzheimer’s,” says Salas, and other types of cognitive impairment. It is still early, but the geneticist acknowledges that when he saw the first results of this research, in which he shares the baton with Federico Martinón, head of Pediatrics at CHUS, he could have shouted: Eureka!

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Bea P. accompanies her mother, Encarna C., an 87-year-old woman with dementia and in a wheelchair who began to sink into herself when she became a widower at the concert on the 30th. Today Encarna, who arrives from the Coruña town of Ribeira through the collaborating foundation Agadea (Galician Association of Help for Patients with Alzheimer’s), allows her finger to be pricked without losing her smile for a moment. Her daughter has no doubts: she has already proven at home that music is capable of opening unexpected trunks of memories in her mother’s head. “When the granddaughter sings jumping rope”, the lyrics and the notes begin to sprout from Encarna’s throat. She spends it, above all, with the tunes that she learned as a child, “since I’m the queen of seas until To Virgin of Guadalupe”.

In another position of the tables where the samples are taken, Rebeca, 10 years old, donates her little drop of blood with her mother, Nuria Rodríguez. Both are healthy, but Nuria is a Physics and Chemistry teacher. That is why they are here: “I am interested in everything that has to do with science. We found out about this on Facebook and decided to help.”

Antonio Salas reviews some samples kept in an IDIS freezer.
Antonio Salas reviews some samples kept in an IDIS freezer.

Tickets, free, ran out in four days. With the public already in their seats, the managing director of the Real Filharmonía, Sabela Garcia Fonte, opened the session: “Today you will become part of the history of science”. The next thing, before lights out, was the collection of saliva samples, each attendee with their swab. Also most of the musicians offered to be tested. This harvest of tens of thousands of molecules is now preserved, anonymized, in a room at IDIS occupied by nine huge freezers at -82 degrees Celsius. Each one has a capacity for more than 50,000 samples, but not all of them are from this project. The scientific teams involved in Sensogenome are GenPoB (Population Genetics in Biomedicine) and GenVip (Research Group on Genetics, Vaccines, Infectious Diseases and Pediatrics), and are embarking on other adventures. Salas also teaches Forensic Genetics classes, and this morning, at IDIS, she has a visit from the Criminalistics students.

Whiteboard of the Sensogenome team with working hypotheses.
Whiteboard of the Sensogenome team with working hypotheses.

“The sensogenomics is the discipline of genetics that seeks to fight the disease through sensory stimuli” explains the website of the Galician project, with which institutions such as Imperial College London, the universities of Oxford and Bristol or the Singapore Institute of Genomics collaborate. With Salas and Martinón, the third leg in the direction of Sensogenoma is Laura Navarro, musicologist and doctor in Music Education (who was also Salas’s own piano teacher). At the moment, explains the professor of genetics, the molecular bases of musical stimulation are being studied in search of new therapeutic targets “for diseases without effective treatment such as Alzheimer’s or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders)”.

But music is only the beginning, as it is perhaps the art capable of changing a mood more instantly. The plan is to study other stimuli later, from painting to gastronomy. That is why on the advisory committee there are not only neurologists, oncologists, pediatricians, anthropologists, geneticists, psychiatrists, microbiologists, pharmacists or musicians, but also a couple of chefs.

But for musical research to continue testing concerts (of many other styles) and taking steps, funds are needed that do not exist today. The initiative, which for the past five years has advanced more by will than by economic resources, is now seeking the sponsorship of private capital or the support of European funds. “There are no studies in the world of gene expression against stimuli”, emphasizes Salas. “Nobody thought of doing this before.” If it happened in Galicia, it is largely due to the fact that this geneticist has experienced the therapeutic effects of music in his own family and is himself a declared music lover. Antonio Salas is subscribed to the RFG Thursday concertsand confesses that the idea began to mature in January 2017, after the concert by the Russian-German pianist Olga Scheps: “It left me totally upset.”

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The Galician auditorium is transformed into a laboratory to investigate whether Brahms and Piazzolla alter genes