Research briefs: Heartbeats to music, motivation and stress, and COVID-19 vaccines


Published: 14Oct2021

Here are some interesting new stories from McGill University Media Relations:


Rhythms of music and heartbeats

When you listen to or perform music, you may notice that you move your body in time with the music. You may also synchronise to music in ways that you may not be aware of, such as your heartbeats. Scientists from McGill, led by Caroline Palmer, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance, investigated how musicians’ heart rhythms change when they perform familiar and unfamiliar piano melodies at different times of day. Contrary to some predictions, they found that musicians’ heart rhythms were more predictable and rigidly patterned when they performed unfamiliar melodies, and when they performed early in the morning. These findings suggest that musicians’ heart rhythms may be influenced by time of day as well as by how novel or how difficult a performance is. Ultimately, this research can inform us about how to best apply music in therapeutic settings such as in interventions that target abnormal cardiovascular patterns.

"Physiological and behavioural factors in musicians’ performance tempo" by Shannon E. Wright and Caroline Palmer was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Stress affects our motivation to do difficult tasks

Stress increases people’s tendency to avoid cognitively demanding tasks, without necessarily altering their ability to perform those tasks according to new research from McGill University. “People are demand-averse,” says Ross Otto, an Assistant Professor of psychology at McGill. “We found that stress increases that aversion.” Study participants had to choose between repeating a single task over and over, or the more cognitively demanding process of frequently switching from one kind of task to another. They then compared the choices made by individuals under acute stress against those of a control group. “The interesting thing is – the stress effects didn’t come out in performance,” Otto explains. “So, it's not that the study participants were worse at either the more demanding or the less demanding task – their performance was no different; it’s just that when you give them the choice of whether they want to do one or the other, stress increases their unwillingness to invest effort.”

"Acute Psychosocial Stress Increases Cognitive-Effort Avoidance" by Mario Bogdanov et al. was published in Psychological Science.

More cost-effective and accessible COVID-19 vaccines

New possibilities for producing more efficient, globally accessible, and pandemic-ready vaccines may exist thanks to the work of a McGill-led research team headed by Amine A. Kamen, Full Professor in the Department of Bioengineering. The Vero cell line is considered one of the most effective viral vaccines manufacturing platform for infectious diseases such as MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and more recently SARS-CoV-2. Over the course of the pandemic, it has emerged as an important discovery and screening tool to support SARS-CoV-2 isolation and replication, viral vaccine production and identification of potential drug targets. However, the productivity of Vero cells has been limited by the lack of a reference genome. With restricted understanding of host–virus interactions, the full characterization of the Vero cell line has remained incomplete until now. By advanced de novo sequencing and further decoding prior published genomic data highlighting the mechanisms at play during virus growth inside the cells, the researchers believe that it may be possible to speed up the production of new vaccines against emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.

"Haplotype-resolved de novo assembly of the Vero cell line genome" by Marie-Angelique Sene et al. was published in NJP Vaccines.


Herbicide RoundUp disturbing freshwater biodiversity

As Health Canada extends the deadline on public consultation on higher herbicide concentrations in certain foods, research from McGill University shows that the herbicide RoundUp, at concentrations commonly measured in agricultural runoff, can have dramatic effects on natural bacterial communities. "Bacteria are the foundation of the food chain in freshwater ecosystems. How the effects of RoundUp cascade through freshwater ecosystems to affect their health in the long-term deserves much more study,” say the researchers.

"Resistance, resilience, and functional redundancy of freshwater bacterioplankton communities facing a gradient of agricultural stressors in a mesocosm experiment" was published in Molecular Ecology .

Mapping the genome of lake trout to ensure its survival

An international team of researchers from the U.S. and Canada, including researchers from McGill University, have managed to create a reference genome for lake trout to support U.S. state and federal agencies with reintroduction and conservation efforts. Lake trout, once the top predator fish across the Great Lakes, reached near extinction between the 1940s and 1960s due to pollution, overfishing, and predation by the invasive lamprey eel. Once showing striking levels of diversity in terms of size, appearance, and ability to adapt to varied environments, now the only lake trout populations to have survived are to be found in Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Genomes of salmonids, a family that includes lake trout, are harder to compile than those of many other animals, the research team said. “Between 80-100 million years ago, the ancestor of all salmonid species that lake trout belong to went through a whole genome duplication event. As a result, salmonid genomes are difficult to assemble due to their highly repetitive nature and an abundance of duplicated genomic regions with similar sequences,” explains Ioannis Ragousis, co-author of the study and Head of Genome Sciences at the McGill Genome Centre, where the sequencing took place.

"A chromosome-anchored genome assembly for Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)" by Seth R. Smith was published in Molecular Ecology Resources.

Why do species live where they do?

As the climate changes, what factors will decide where species can survive and thrive? Scientists try to answer this question by studying what governs where species live today. Harsh and cold environmental conditions play a role, especially toward the poles like in Canada. But researchers from McGill University show that interactions with other species – like competition and predation – are also major driving factors in determining where species can live, especially in warmer conditions toward the equator.

"Biotic interactions are more often important at species’ warm versus cool range edges" by Alexandra Paquette and Anna Hargreaves was published in Ecology Letters.


Uncovering the chemistry of bleach

Chlorine bleach has been used for almost 250 years since Claude-Louis Berthollet first discovered it in the 1780s. But until now, no one has ever described the structure of the active chemical component of liquid bleach - known to chemists as sodium hypochlorite. Research from McGill has now elucidated the structure of sodium hypochlorite, a very simple and a very unstable compound (making it difficult to isolate). This compound is also a member of the broader family of hypohalites, simple but also highly reactive compounds that are of fundamental importance in chemistry, and which have a dedicated spot in every textbook of general or inorganic chemistry. The recent paper, which is the first to provide a structural characterization of a hypochlorite and a hypobromite (also a well-known pool sanitizer) salt, fills an outstanding gap in structural chemistry.

"After 200 years: the structure of bleach and characterization of hypohalite ions by single-crystal X-ray diffraction" was published in Angewandte Chimie.

Contact Information

Katherine Gombay
Media Relations, McGill University
katherine.gombay [at]
Mobile Phone: 
(514) 717-2289
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