Listening to Your Favorite Music and Cognitive Decline

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Listening to Your Favorite Music and Cognitive Decline     

Jim Windell

             If you enjoy listening to your favorite music over and over, it’s not just a personality quirk. It may actually be doing a good thing for your brain. And this may be especially true if you are beginning to experience some cognitive declines.

            Researchers at the University of Toronto in a new study suggest that listening to one’s favorite music improves brain plasticity.

           In the study, recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 14 participants -- eight non-musicians and six musicians -- listened to a curated playlist of autobiographically relevant, long-known music for one hour a day over the course of three weeks. Before and after the listening period, all participants underwent structural and task-based functional MRI to determine changes to brain function and structure. During these MRI scans, they listened to clips of both long-known and newly composed music. Heard one hour before scanning, the new music was similar in style yet held no personal meaning.

           The researchers, led by Dr. Michael Thaut, senior author of the study and director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, found thar when participants listened to the recently heard, newly composed music brain activity occurred mainly in the auditory cortex, centered on the listening experience. However, when participants listened to long-known music, there was significant activation in the deep-encoded network of the prefrontal cortex. The researchers concluded that this was a clear indication of executive cognitive engagement. There was also strong engagement in subcortical brain regions, older areas minimally affected by Alzheimer's disease pathology.

           The research team reported structural and functional changes in neural pathways of study participants, notably in the prefrontal cortex, the brain's control centre where deep cognitive processes occur. Thaut and his team showed that exposing the brains of patients with early-stage cognitive decline to autobiographically salient music activated a distinct neural network – a musical network – comprised of diverse brain regions that showed differences in activation after a period of daily music listening. Differences were also observed in the brain's connections and white matter, providing further evidence of neuroplasticity.

           According to Thaut, professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music and Temerty Faculty of Medicine, “We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music – that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like the song they danced to at their wedding – stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning.”

           Thaut went on to say that typically it is very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer's patients. “These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia – musicians and non-musicians alike,” Thaut said.

           “Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” added Dr. Corinne Fischer, lead author and director of Geriatric Psychiatry at St. Michael's Hospital of Unity Health Toronto and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

           Previous treatments for Alzheimer's disease have shown limited benefit. Although Thaut and his associates indicate that larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, the findings of this study suggest that an individualized and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.

           It could be that music is an access key to your memory and to your pre-frontal cortex.

           If so, the message seems simple and direct: Keep listening to music you’ve always loved, those songs that have always held special meaning for you. By doing so, you might just delay any early cognitive decline.

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Fischer, C.E., Churchill, N., Leggieri, M., Vuong,V., Tau, M., Fornazzari, L.R. Thaut, M.H., & Schweizer, T.A. (2021). Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline: A Pilot StudyJournal of Alzheimer's Disease, 84 (2): 819 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-210610





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