Practicing and Listening to Music Can Slow Cognitive Decline in Healthy Seniors by Producing More Gray Matter

Released by University of Geneva © UNIGE – Damien Marie

Listening to music or playing an instrument can delay cognitive decline as we age—by producing gray matter in the brain—a new study shows.

The researchers followed over 100 retired people who had never practiced music before. They were enrolled in piano and music awareness training for six months, which when finished consumed in an increase in working memory performance by 6% and a total reduction in gray matter loss in the piano playing group.

Taken altogether, the scientists believe that while musical interventions cannot rejuvenate the brain, they can prevent aging in specific regions, specifically in people with no musical background who start playing in their senior years.

As the brain ages, it loses a trait that everybody who wants to understand a little about their own neurology should remember—neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the measurement of the brain’s ability to flex and work on different tasks by enhancing neuronal connections and creating new ones to suit new tasks.

Key among neuroplasticity is working memory, which describes the kind of mental effort needed to remember a whole phone number long enough to be able to reach the pen and paper to write it down, or translate a sentence from a foreign language.

A team from the University of Geneva wanted to see how much the musical domain could prevent this loss of working memory associated with age-related cognitive decline.

”We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. 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”, explains Damien Marie, first author of the study.

The participants were randomly assigned to two groups, regardless of their motivation to play an instrument. The second group had active listening lessons, which focused on instrument recognition and analysis of musical properties in a wide range of musical styles. The classes last one hour. Participants in both groups were required to do homework for half an hour a day.

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”After six months, we found common effects for both interventions. Neuroimaging revealed an increase in gray matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including the cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by 6% and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum,” says Clara James, another author of the study.

In blue, the areas affected by the increase in gray matter in the elderly as a result of music practice. Released by University of Geneva © UNIGE – Damien Marie

In the pianists, the volume of gray matter around the auditory cortex remained consistent; it didn’t shrink with age. For those in the musical analysis group, the gray matter did decrease at normal rates.

Also, a general pattern of brain atrophy was still observed in both groups, suggesting that complex interactions with music were limited in their effects on our most complex organs.

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These results show that practicing and listening to music promotes brain plasticity and cognitive reserve. The authors of the study believe that these playful and accessible interventions should become a major policy priority for healthy aging.

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