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Music As Therapy? PureTech’s “Sync Project” Aims to Prove It

There’s an old lyric by Bob Seger about Rock and Roll: “That kind of music just soothes the soul.” Listen to an upbeat song while depressed, and you might forget your sorrows.

Indeed, music has always seemed therapeutic. Now a new venture from Boston-based startup creator PureTech is going to try to prove it with clinical data.

PureTech has announced the formation of what’s being called “The Sync Project.” It’s a collaboration between the Boston firm and several academic institutions and companies with an ambitious idea: scientifically measure and study how music affects various biological functions, like sleep, cognition, speech development, and motor coordination, with the goal of validating the therapy concept, and developing products that actually impact various diseases.

The Sync Project is being run by PureTech partner Alexis Kopikis. PureTech CEO Daphne Zohar is a co-founder. Their advisors include Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival; Adam Gazzaley, a University of California at San Francisco psychology professor (and the chief science officer of another PureTech startup, Akili Interactive); Robert Zatorre, a neurology professor at McGill University; Tristan Jehan, the founding chief technology officer of The Echo Nest; and two academics from the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito (who recently joined PureTech’s board) and Marko Ahtisaari.

The core of the project is a platform that’s supposed to give researchers the ability to study the therapeutic value of music in large populations. PureTech said in a statement that there was a “mountain of research” in scientific literature showing that music has a positive effect on pain and fatigue, but no real connection has been proven in a well-designed, controlled study. The platform is designed to address this problem: it maps music to biometric data in real time, so that researchers can supposedly pinpoint the physiological effects a song has on a person. The system has an interface so apps can be built on it, Zohar said via e-mail.

The platform is open, she added: “We are inviting a community of researchers to participate, as well as the broader population.”

Zohar said that the project will run “well-designed studies with leading researchers looking at specific conditions as well as enabling broader remote studies with more people that may be less well-controlled, but will have a larger sample size than a typical controlled study.”

She declined to specify how much funding the project has.

According to Sync Project co-founder and head of science innovation Ketki Karanam, the startup will first look at autism, sleep disorders, and anxiety, and intends to explore other conditions like Parkinson’s, depression, and pain as well. “We hope to build the largest database of music signatures for health,” she said.

Karanam added that researchers or engineers can tap into Sync Project to build applications for specific patient groups. “One product could be an app that delivers personalized music to individuals on the autism spectrum to help them manage hyper arousal episodes (predicted from sensor data) that lead to self-injury and meltdowns,” she said.

This isn’t the first venture PureTech has put together at the intersection of technology and health. Zohar told me previously that the strategy of PureTech—which isn’t a venture firm, but essentially an operating company whose startups are subsidiaries—has evolved over the years to focus on startups that combine various elements of science and technology. That’s led to companies like Akili, which is developing video games for diagnosing and treating cognitive disorders; and Tal Medical, which is trying to treat depression by rewiring the brain’s electrical circuitry with a device.

Now it’s trying to find out whether a therapy can be built out of a song. The timing could be right: music therapy is a burgeoning field, with new companies starting to emerge.

“People have always responded to music. Not just emotionally, but biologically,” Kopikis said in a statement. “If music can reach us physically, and we could find a way of decoding what music does, could we use music to improve health? We believe we can. And that’s why we started The Sync Project.”

By Ben Fidler, www.xconomy.com, www.msidallas.com