Practicing and actively listening to music can have beneficial effects on cognitive functions.

A new study reveals that practicing and listening to music can help slow cognitive decline in older people. Musical activities increased brain gray matter in certain areas, thereby increasing its plasticity, although they did not reverse or halt brain atrophy due to aging. Multimodal activities, including music, can provide needed exercise to multiple regions of the brain.

Our ability to learn new things and remember new information depends on the plasticity of the brain, that is, its ability to rearrange the connections, or pathways, between neurons in order to encode and store information. new news. With age, the plasticity of the brain tends to decrease, making it more difficult to learn new things. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loss of the gray matter in which our neurons reside, which leads to brain atrophy and greater cognitive degeneration.

A new study has found that intensive music practice and active listening can slow the loss of gray matter in the brain and prolong its plasticity. The six-month randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva and EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland observed a significant increase in gray matter volume in four areas of the brain. These areas are linked to high-level cognitive functions and include the cerebellum.

The type of memory most immediately affected by a loss of plasticity is “working memory”. It is the form of memory that allows you to remember information long enough to perform an action. For example, if you realize you’re out of apples, you can remember it long enough to jot it down on a shopping list.

In the study, participants’ working memory improved by an average of 6% on cognitive tests. The researchers attribute this result to an increase in the cerebellum, a region associated with working memory. Brain plasticity is also closely linked to a person’s cognitive reserve, that is, their ability to deal with damage and decline.
The study is published in Neuroimage: Reports.

Practice music 5 days a week for 30 minutes

The study involved 132 participants between the ages of 62 and 78. None of them had had six months or more of musical training in their lives. All were right-handed, physically and mentally healthy, retired, and not dependent on hearing aids. The participants were divided into two equal groups. The first group received one-hour piano lessons a week, hoping that its members would practice five days a week for 30 minutes. The other participants practiced music awareness in active listening sessions. They were taught basic musical concepts, including the identification of individual instruments. More advanced courses were taught to recognize musical styles and examples from different musical eras and to learn to perceive emotion in musical examples.
At the end of the six months, all participants were given a cognitive function test. They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that allowed the study authors to observe changes in gray matter.

music and the brain

In the study of maintaining or restoring brain plasticity, music has particular advantages. Learning to play an instrument or actively listening to music are multimodal activities, involving not only closely related sensorimotor domains (near transference, e.g. auditory processing), but also more distant domains, e.g. processing, affective domains, memory, language, executive functions or abstract reasoning, etc.

Also, music has rewarding aspects that are important for motivation. The affective and rewarding aspects of musical activities provide intrinsic motivation, supported by neurochemistry (eg, dopamine) that can enhance learning. While there have been studies on music and brain plasticity before, this is the first to assess outcomes through neuroimaging as well as behavioral measures. It is also a large study, designed to be replicable by others for verification purposes, and lasted long enough to produce beneficial effects.

We know that the frequency and duration of musical training is essential for learning. The findings of the study are unbiased, describing both positive and negative observations. For example, the study found that despite some improvement in gray matter volume, all participants continued to experience age-related brain atrophy.

In this article, the researchers explain that music can slow down the aging process in certain regions of the brain, that it is linked to working memory and brain plasticity, but that our brain does not miraculously rejuvenate thanks to these interventions. . Atrophy is still present. Additionally, the social benefits associated with playing or listening to music in the study groups were significant for overall well-being, health, and happiness.

Differences between playing and listening to music

The researchers observed in the group playing the piano that the amount of gray matter in the right primary auditory cortex showed no reduction after six months. It is not the same for the group listening to music, which has lost volume of gray matter. Given the specialization of the right hemisphere in tonal processing and its relationship to the anatomy of the auditory cortex, the researchers hypothesize that this effect of gray matter maintenance plasticity associated with piano learning may be related to tonal processing, ear learning, audio-motor coupling or sound-object associations (tone-keyboard key).

Stimulating neuroplasticity beyond music

The study suggests that multimodal activities such as music, which engage multiple brain regions, are most likely to promote plasticity, especially those that involve the sensorimotor and physical domains. Do something you’ve always wanted to do, because motivation is very important for learning, which will be associated with brain plasticity and cognitive reserve benefits.

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