Music is woven into the very fabric of human evolution — some experts even surmise that it’s likely humans sang before we spoke. Music plays an essential communicative role even today. It connects us with others, with our own emotions, and ultimately it lays the groundwork for our highly social brains.
Music and cognition
Researchers have long noted how music affects infants: listening to music helps soothe them, encourages brain development, and promotes language and social skills. However, for those on the other end of life’s spectrum and living with neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, music can help reconnect a person to themselves— and their memories.
Psyche Loui, director of the MIND Lab (Music Imaging and Neural Dynamics) and associate professor of music at Northeastern University, along with her colleagues, recently published a new study showing that listening to their favorite tunes increases connectivity and responsiveness in the brains of patients with dementia.
Loui and her team of music therapists, neurologists, and geriatric psychiatrists, published their findings in Nature’s Scientific Reports and identified how music bridges the gap between the brain’s auditory system and its reward system, the region that manages motivation. They documented that music creates shortcuts that help bring thoughts back into mind.
Loui’s curiosity about music’s potentially therapeutic use for dementia patients comes out of her own experiences performing music for residents of nursing homes. There, she saw how individuals who would usually struggle to finish their sentences would suddenly be able to harmonize and sing along when exposed to familiar songs.
“There’s something about music that is this functional connectivity between the auditory and reward system, and that’s why music is so special and able to tap into these seemingly very general cognitive functions that are suddenly very engaged in folks with dementia who are hearing music,” explains Loui.
Listening and joy
To come to this conclusion, the researchers gathered a group of older adults from the Boston area between the ages of 54 and 89. These participants were then instructed to listen to a playlist for an hour every day and journal about their response to the music after listening for eight weeks straight. Before and after each session, Loui and her team scanned the participants’ brains to measure their neurological responses.
Just like each participant, the playlists were very different. Each one got a highly personalized playlist comprised of a combination of the participant’s self-selected favorites and pre-selected tracks that ranged from classical pieces to pop and also new compositions by Hubert Ho, an associate teaching professor of music at Northeastern University. The participants were asked to rate each track based on how much they liked it and how familiar it was to them.
The researchers found that music was able to forge an auditory channel straight to the medial prefrontal cortex, which is otherwise known as the brain’s reward center. This is especially interesting as the medial prefrontal cortex “is one of the areas to lose its activity and functional connectivity in aging adults, especially in folks with dementia,” says Loui.
However, she goes on to say, “the most important lesson that we learned from the music therapist was that there is no one-size-fits-all for what kind of music works best.” It turns out that the songs that the participants selected themselves were able to create a remarkably stronger connection between the auditory area and the reward area of the brain.
“This might be the central mechanism for what changes happen in the brain when you’re listening to music and when you’re consistently, persistently, and mindfully listening to music over the course of an intervention,” Loui continues.
Loui’s study is one of the first to document neurological changes from extended exposure to the music-based intervention. She believes her work will spur more examinations of music’s influence on brain health. While many professionals acknowledge that music therapy helps calm older adults and those with mental illnesses, there is a gap in the research on precisely how and to what extent music supports memory, cognition, and executive function.
Louis is working on extending her study to older adults with cognitive and neurodegenerative disorders because they would be the ones who might benefit most from the effects of music therapy.
“We’re trying to design these new therapies to take advantage of the rhythmic properties of music and the rhythmic properties of the brain,” she says, “and the tuning of neural populations towards the acoustic signals of the music might be useful for improving cognition.”
Source study: Scientific Reports—Longitudinal changes in auditory and reward systems following receptive music-based intervention in older adults