A Conversation with Yune S. Lee, PhD

How did you become interested in research that combines speech, language and music?

I was a guitar kid growing up in Seoul, South Korea. In college, I played in a rock band while majoring in biology. As my passion for music grew, I decided to work in the music industry. I got a job at a studio where I composed music for TV commercials for clients like LG and Samsung. I experienced deep satisfaction by achieving perfectly synchronized music and visuals. I began thinking about music and the brain:  How does the brain integrate sounds and visuals so seamlessly? This curiosity led me to extensively read scientific literature in the brain sciences and culminated in my desire to get my PhD.

I was accepted into the cognitive neuroscience PhD program at Dartmouth College, where I took a deep dive into auditory neuroscience. At the University of Pennsylvania, I began my postdoctoral research, where I delved into clinically oriented neuroscience projects. In patients with aphasia — a language disorder that results from brain damage due to stroke or traumatic brain injury — I was fascinated by a phenomenon in which patients who had trouble speaking could actually sing. Unfortunately, we don’t know how this happens. This has been driving my research to understand the neural and behavioral connection between speech, language and music.

Through a worldwide competition, you received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Sound Health initiative. You also received an NIH Small Business Innovation Research grant. How is this funding fueling your research?

We still don’t know what aspects of music lead to speech recovery in patients with aphasia. People used to believe that it may be melodic or pitch variation, but recent evidence showed that rhythm alone yielded a similar degree of speech fluency compared to singing.

The NIH grant for the Sound Health initiative allows me to identify the therapeutic role of rhythm by conducting a clinical trial. For this, I created an app called Speech Hero in collaboration with Flint Rehab, a neurorehab technology company. We recently received a companion NIH Small Business Innovation Research grant for this project.

The app is like a video game that guides aphasic patients through a three-step therapy process. First, patients start with tapping, so they get the hang of a rhythmic pattern. Then, they tap and speak a sentence like “I love you.” Eventually, they speak without tapping.

Through this research, we hope to help aphasic patients regain their ability to speak. Ultimately, we want to commercialize the app to benefit patients everywhere.

With grant funding from AWARE, an organization dedicated to fighting Alzheimer’s disease, you are conducting research to help people with Alzheimer’s recover their memory through an app called TheraBeat. What is TheraBeat?

People with Alzheimer’s gradually lose their memories and their identity. But when they listen to their favorite music, they behave as if they are free from the syndrome. They respond to questions. Their memory comes back, and they recognize family members. Again, we don’t know how this happens.

TheraBeat is a novel sound therapy program and app that integrates music with a binaural beat to improve the cognitive and psychological states of individuals with Alzheimer’s. Patients will download the app and search for their favorite music. Then, the app combines the binaural beat with the music seamlessly.

So, what is a binaural beat? A binaural beat is an auditory illusion that occurs when you hear different frequency sounds in different ears. We will use a 40 hertz binaural beat to facilitate the memory system in the brain. We chose 40 hertz because in previous research with an Alzheimer’s model mouse, this frequency was shown to reduce its amyloid-β level — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Our hope is that TheraBeat will benefit humans.

We will pilot TheraBeat through a small clinical trial and then attract more funding to conduct a larger clinical trial. Ultimately, we want to disseminate this therapy to Alzheimer’s patients worldwide to help bring their memories back.