Music and the Brain: Cerebral Activity in Patients with Neurological Disorders
Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Does listening to music have any effect on the brain? Research has shown that music can positively impact the brain whether it is evoking memories in Alzheimer’s patients, or helping patients recover from a severe brain injury.
Author: Jasmine Kokkat
The number of parents paying for childrens’ music classes in Canada are increasing, and so are the number of studies being done on proving that music helps with cognitive functions and memory. But is there a real effect on the brain from listening to music?
Many researchers have been trying to determine whether this theory is accurate by conducting tests on patients with dementia or cognitive impairment . This has been done by identifying which parts of the brain are stimulated and analyzing brain scans to track any signs of improvement in cognitive abilities .
Music is often said to reduce stress, pain, and depressive symptoms while increasing neurogenesis, cognitive skills, motor skills, and spatial-temporal learning . This is all activity centered around the brain being stimulated by music, with many regions being affected such as the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, occipital lobe, and hypothalamus .
The temporal lobe, also known as the language centre, processes what we hear . where the left hemisphere understands words and language, and the right hemisphere understands music and sound . The occipital lobe (visual cortex) is activated for professional musicians when listening to music, while the average person experiences frontal lobe (auditory and language center) activation [1,2]. This is because musicians can often visualize the music score when listening . Music is also responsible for increasing dopamine, the hormone responsible for pleasure, which is released by the nucleus accumbens .
Researchers used to believe that classical music was the genre that primarily helped improve brain activity . The hypothalamus, which links the nervous system and endocrine system, can be stimulated by Mozart music, for example, helping to lower heart rate and blood pressure . However, classical music being the only genre to help cognitive development has been disproven . Evidence shows that an individual’s favourite music from when they grew up is just as beneficial, since it is associated with fond memories, triggering many emotions . These emotions are regulated by the amygdala, which is the center of many vital functions such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion . With this knowledge, it is established that music can be used to treat many neurological diseases and disorders .
Dementia, a disease affecting approximately 50 million people worldwide, has four forms: (1) Alzheimer’s disease, (2) vascular dementia, (3) frontotemporal dementia, and (4) dementia with Lewy bodies .
People diagnosed with dementia are typically affected in at least two of the following areas: memory, visual-spatial skills, language, and personality disorders . This is most common in people over 65 years of age and those with underlying problems like hypertension and diabetes . In order to help these patients, music therapy has become a non-pharmacological method for cognitive rehabilitation, suggested to reduce the symptoms of dementia .
Patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease have affected brain regions such as the cerebellum, hippocampus, and putamen, which can recover with exposure to music . The cerebellum coordinates movement and stores physical memory, with this area being less affected in Alzheimer’s patients . This is why they are able to play the piano through muscle memory, while being unable to remember their family members . The hippocampus produces and retrieves memories, being one of the first areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease . For this reason, music has been suggested as a treatment method to help neurogenesis to produce more neurons and improve memory . In addition, the putamen processes rhythm and regulates body movement, and music can increase dopamine in this area . The putamen helps people respond to rhythm, helping to temporarily stop symptoms of Parkinson’s patients when music is playing .
A team of researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a study in November 2018 on 20 people affected by the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) . They were asked to listen to their preferred music playlist for one hour a day for three weeks while they tried to recall past events in their life with their family or caregivers . Afterwards, an MRI was used to take scans of their brain which showed an improvement in brain functional connectivity and memory . Connectivity is a measure of information flow between different brain regions, which is a crucial function humans need to carry out daily tasks . This improvement in connectivity and other changes suggests that repeatedly listening to familiar music may improve the cognitive functions of the Alzheimer or MCI-affected brain .
Although this study was small and must be applied to a larger-scale study, it does form the basis on which focused music therapy can be recommended to slow the effects of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia . Unfortunately, this study did not determine whether continuously listening to music will bring long-lasting or transient benefits .
Other studies, such as one conducted at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, found that music is also associated with an improved ability for auditory imagery, with musically inclined groups performing better than laypeople . Overall, more research is still needed to further understand the direct correlation between music and brain activity, as they are very recent ongoing developments .
Presently, music therapy and an increase in exposure to music are promoted to help patients with neurological disorders and healthy people alike . Patients with dementia and other brain-related illnesses currently have no effective pharmacological treatment, making it non-reversible . Numerous studies have been done in the past years, but there were inconsistencies in confirming a direct correlation between music and overall memory improvement. This is why music serves as a recommended tool to improve and stimulate brain activity, with researchers still needing to analyze the lasting effects further .
In conclusion, music remains an integral part of many people’s lives and brings many cognitive benefits from early childhood to senior years.
Alison MacPhee, Rushil Dua, Rhea Verma
Web design by Majd Al-Aarg
Cover Photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash
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