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Deaf People Can "Feel" Music

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Nov. 28, 2001 -- When Heather Whitestone won the Miss America pageant in 1995, many people were amazed at how graceful she moved to the music -- since she's deaf. But a new study may explain just how she and so many other hearing-impaired people are able to enjoy music.

Dean Shibata, MD, found that deaf people are able to sense vibrations in the same part of the brain that others use for hearing. Shibata was at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York at the time of the study.

He studied 10 students with profound hearing loss from birth and compared them to 11 hearing people. Each person was asked to tell the researchers when they were able to detect a vibrating pipe in their hand. At the same time, brain scans were done to pick up signals being transmitted to the brain.

Shibata found that when the deaf people felt the vibrations, areas in the brain that are usually responsible for hearing showed activity.

Shibata presented his findings at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America this week.

"These findings suggest that the experience deaf people have when 'feeling' music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing music," said Shibata in a news release.

"The perception of the musical vibrations by the deaf is likely every bit as real as the equivalent sounds, since they are ultimately processed in the same part of the brain," he says.

Shibata also points out another important implication of this study.

He says that surgeons should be careful when performing brain surgery on a deaf person since the "hearing" area of the brain clearly has a function.

He also says that this study suggests it may be helpful to expose deaf children to music early in life so that the "music centers" in their brain may be stimulated to develop.

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