Tickling the ivories may improve age-related cognitive decline
As we age, our brains naturally atrophy, and we experience cognitive decline. New research suggests that listening to music or playing a musical instrument may improve cognitive functioning in healthy older people.
Working memory is particularly affected by age – that is, the ability to temporarily retain information before using it to achieve a goal. An example of working memory is remembering a phone number long enough to write it down. Functional MRIs show that working memory is supported by the same parts of the brain that are impacted by age-related atrophy.
Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to remodel and rewire itself in response to our environment or experiences; it’s a process that happens throughout our lives. While age reduces neuroplasticity, it doesn’t eliminate it. The aging brain still has considerable plasticity in the form of its cognitive reserve or its ability to resist neural damage.
How, then, can healthy older people improve neuroplasticity and prevent cognitive decline? Research has shown differences in the brain structure and function of young adults with varying musical expertise, from non-musicians to expert pianists. And studies have demonstrated that music training transfers to working memory, with musicians showing improved working memory compared to non-musicians.
Researchers from the University of Geneva tested the hypothesis that music may likewise have a positive effect on working memory in older people, thereby protecting the brain against age-related decline.
They enrolled 132 healthy retirees aged 62 to 78 in the study. Participants were only chosen only if they had not taken more than six months of music lessons at any time in their lives.
“We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning,” said Damien Marie, lead author of the study. “Indeed, even a brief learning experience in the course of one’s life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results.”
Participants were randomly separated into two groups. The first had an hour of piano training and was asked to practice at home five days a week for at least 30 minutes. They learned how to play the piano with both hands, read a musical score, and improvise. The second group received active listening lessons that included analyzing the music of different genres, learning to identify various instruments, and musical history and theory.
Both groups underwent psychometric testing and had MRIs to assess brain changes.
“After six months, we found common effects for both interventions,” said Clara James, corresponding author of the study. “Neuroimaging revealed an increase in gray matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by 6% and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum.”
The cerebellum is located at the back of the head, just above and behind where the spinal cord connects to the brain. Although it accounts for about 10% of the total weight of the brain, it contains up to 80% of its neurons. The gray matter, abundant in the cerebellum, processes information and controls movement, memory, and emotions.
The researchers found differences between the two groups. In the group who learned piano, the volume of gray matter remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex, a key region for processing sounds. In contrast, it decreased in the active listening group.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence of an overall decrease in brain atrophy, suggesting that music only affects certain parts of the brain.
“[A] global brain pattern of atrophy was present in all participants,” Marie said. “Therefore, we cannot conclude that musical interventions rejuvenate the brain. They only prevent aging in specific regions.”
Nonetheless, the study’s findings show that practicing and listening to music enhances brain plasticity and cognitive reserve. In a population that is aging, the researchers say that incorporating accessible interventions, such as learning to play a musical instrument, is important for maintaining the health of that population.
Next, the researchers intend to evaluate the effect of music on the brains of people with mild cognitive impairment, the stage between normal aging and dementia.
The study was published in the journal Neuroimage: Reports.
Source: University of Geneva
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Begs the question would we see similar results in other parts of the brain with different activities, suspect we would see similar!