The vast majority of neural growth for a baby occurs during the last trimester of a pregnancy. When this process is disrupted, due to premature birth, neural networks can be impaired and the baby can ultimately develop neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning difficulties. An exciting new study has demonstrated how specially composed music can aid brain growth in premature babies, resulting in neural development similar to that of full-term infants.

The research started by investigating which particular sounds and musical instruments would be most suitable for premature babies. It was hypothesized that calming and pleasant sounds would be the most appropriate at negating the stressful experience of premature birth. 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 the therapeutic music, working with a developmental support nurse to experiment with different sounds on newborn babies. Lara Lordier, one of the researchers on the project, explains how Vollenweider generated three specific musical pieces based around instruments the babies best responded to.

"It was important that these musical stimuli were related to the baby's condition," explains Lordier. "We wanted to structure the day with pleasant stimuli at appropriate times: a music to accompany their awakening, a music to accompany their falling asleep, and a music to interact during the awakening phases. The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers' flute (the punji). Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music!"

Once the three eight-minute arrangements were composed the researchers set out to test the power of the music through a double-blind control trial. A cohort of premature babies was split into two groups, one receiving five music therapy sessions a week and the other group acting as a control. Each music session consisted of the baby listening to one of the eight-minute compositions through headphones.

At 40 weeks all the babys' brains were imaged using resting-state fMRI, and these scans were subsequently compared against similar brain scans from healthy full-term infants. The brains of the untreated premature babies at 40 weeks predictably showed consistent impairments in a number of regions, compared to the full-term infants.

"The most affected network is the salience network which detects 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 and performing cognitive tasks as well as in social relationships or emotional management."

However, the premature babies who received the musical treatment exhibited significant improvements across a number of neural networks. Functional connectivity between the salience network and auditory, sensorimotor, frontal, thalamus and precuneus networks were all increased. And even more impressively, the overall brain network organization in the musically treated babies was more similar to that seen in full-term infants than conventionally managed premature babies.

It's an incredible result from a relatively small intervention. It is unclear at this stage what the long-term effects are of this musical treatment. The first wave of premature babies tested in this study are now reaching the age of six, which is when neurodevelopment problems usually become apparent. The next stage of the study will be to examine these children at this older age and see if there are long-term benefits to the musical treatment, both behaviorally and neurologically.

Hear some of the specially composed music used by the researchers in the video below.

The new study is published in the journal PNAS.