Irish Times BANG - Celebrity Brains

Whether celebrities are singing, dancing, acting up or falling down, their stories are always in the news. So what bits of their brains are working behind the scenes? CLAIRE O’CONNELL takes a look.

Making Music

It might look easy when professionals do it, but making music involves lots of brain activity. A singer or musician might have to remember words or melodies they have practised before, so they engage the hippocampus deep within their brain. Or if they are improvising, they may be making choices and switching off inhibitions using their prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in how they act.

Meanwhile, their nerves are picking up information from their sense organs – seeing musical notes written on a sheet, hearing sound cues from the backing track, even feeling the rhythm vibrating. Their brain integrates these incoming signals, then the person reacts on time by relaying messages out along motor nerves to control their breathing, limbs and fingers.

Are you looking at Jedward and Justin Bieber in a whole new light now?


Shakira, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga – good dancers always catch your eye, and a portion of the brain called the cerebellum is a key mover in throwing those shapes while keeping to the rhythm.

The cerebellum, which is tucked away underneath the back of the head, helps a dancer’s body track a beat, keep balance and move muscles. Add in the brain-chatter that needs to go on to link those dance moves to the soundtrack and you have a big party going on in there.

Brain Conditions

Just like the rest of us, celebrities can have brain conditions, and some choose to use their fame to help raise awareness of them. Singer Kerry Katona and actor and comedian Stephen Fry each have bipolar disorder, where the person can go through periods of intense depression, then “manic” phases of extreme optimism and energy, or sometimes even have both at the same time. Medicine and psychological treatment can help to manage the symptoms.

Another high-profile advocate for patients with brain disease is Canadian actor Michael J Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30. In Parkinson’s, brain cells die away in a portion of the brain that’s involved in movement, and symptoms include tremors or shaking. Fox supports research into new forms of treatment, including therapies that use stem cells.


Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen have all had high-profile problems with addiction – but how does it happen in the brain?

It’s complex, but it involves collections of cells deep in the brain that release a chemical called dopamine, which helps make us feel good.

Some drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and heroin result in lots of dopamine pumping out along these reward pathways. But they can mess up the normal controls, meaning that without the drug, the person feels bad and looks for more of a “hit”. The need to get and consume the drug can ultimately devastate the person’s life and those around them.


Some celebrities have a tough life, jetting around the globe for work and even keeping homes on different continents. But the downside to all that travelling can be jetlag, or feeling groggy and tired as your body adjusts to a new time zone.

One of the important factors in regulating your inner clock is a hormone called melatonin – called “the hormone of darkness”.

When it’s getting dark, your pineal gland produces melatonin, which is part of a system that helps you get to sleep. Bright daylight has the opposite effect, squashing melatonin levels so you are wakeful.

But if you jet into a vastly different time zone, the daylight cues are suddenly altered, your body clock goes haywire for a while, and you feel wiped out. Not ideal when the paparazzi are snapping your every move.


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