Incredible study shows music can help build the brains of premature babies
Thevast majority of neural growth for a baby occurs during the lasttrimester of a pregnancy. When this process is disrupted, due topremature birth, neural networks can be impaired and the baby canultimately develop neurodevelopmental disorders such as learningdifficulties. An exciting new study has demonstrated how speciallycomposed music can aid brain growth in premature babies, resulting inneural development similar to that of full-term infants.
The research started by investigating which particular soundsand musical instruments would be most suitable for premature babies.It was hypothesized that calming and pleasant sounds would be themost appropriate at negating the stressful experience of prematurebirth. It's thought that the stress and anxiety of a pre-term birth is somewhat related to the subsequent neural deficits seen in premature babies.
Composer Andreas Vollenweider was recruited to write thetherapeutic music, working with a developmental supportnurse to experiment with different sounds on newborn babies. LaraLordier, one of the researchers on the project, explains howVollenweider generated three specific musical pieces based aroundinstruments the babies best responded to.
"It was important that these musical stimuli were related tothe baby's condition," explains Lordier. "We wanted to structurethe day with pleasant stimuli at appropriate times: a music toaccompany their awakening, a music to accompany their falling asleep,and a music to interact during the awakening phases. The instrumentthat generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers'flute (the punji). Very agitated children calmed down almostinstantly, their attention was drawn to the music!"
Once the three eight-minute arrangements were composed theresearchers set out to test the power of the music through adouble-blind control trial. A cohort of premature babies was splitinto two groups, one receiving five music therapy sessions a week andthe other group acting as a control. Each music session consisted ofthe baby listening to one of the eight-minute compositions throughheadphones.
At 40 weeks all the babys' brains were imaged using resting-statefMRI, and these scans were subsequently compared against similarbrain scans from healthy full-term infants. The brains of theuntreated premature babies at 40 weeks predictably showed consistentimpairments in a number of regions, compared to the full-terminfants.
"The most affected network is the salience network whichdetects information and evaluates its relevance at a specific time,and then makes the link with the other brain networks that must act,"explains Lordier. "This network is essential, both for learning andperforming cognitive tasks as well as in social relationships oremotional management."
However, the premature babies who received the musical treatment exhibited significant improvements across a number of neuralnetworks. Functional connectivity between the salience network andauditory, sensorimotor, frontal, thalamus and precuneus networks wereall increased. And even more impressively, the overall brain networkorganization in the musically treated babies was more similar tothat seen in full-term infants than conventionally managed prematurebabies.
It's an incredible result from a relatively small intervention.It is unclear at this stage what the long-term effects are of thismusical treatment. The first wave of premature babies tested in thisstudy are now reaching the age of six, which is when neurodevelopmentproblems usually become apparent. The next stage of the study will beto examine these children at this older age and see if there arelong-term benefits to the musical treatment, both behaviorally andneurologically.
Hear some of the specially composed music used by the researchers in the video below.
The new study is published in the journal PNAS.
Source: University of Geneva