“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,” says Michael Thaut, PhD, senior author of the study and director of U of T’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, who is also a professor at the Faculty of Music and Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
“Typically, it’s 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,” says Dr. Thaut, who also holds the Tier One Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health.
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. The researchers 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.
They also observed differences in the brain’s connections and white matter, providing further evidence of neuroplasticity.
“Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” says Corinne Fischer, MD, lead author and associate professor of psychiatry at Temerty Medicine, who is also director of geriatric psychiatry at St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto. “Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date. While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualized and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”
For the study, 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. Participants underwent structural and task-based functional MRI before and after the listening period to determine changes to brain function and structure. During these 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.
When participants listened to the recently heard, newly composed music, brain activity occurred mainly in the auditory cortex, centred 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, 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 researchers reported subtle but distinct differences in structural and functional brain changes associated with music listening in musicians relative to non-musicians, though further studies in larger samples are needed to verify these findings. Repeated exposure to music with autobiographical salience improved cognition in all participants, regardless of musicianship.
“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” says Dr. Thaut. “It’s simple – keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favourite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you – make that your brain gym.”
This paper builds on a previous study in the same participant group that first identified the brain mechanisms that encode and preserve musical memories in people with early-stage cognitive decline.
Next, the researchers plan to replicate the study in a larger sample and institute a strong control condition to investigate the role of musicianship in moderating brain responses, and whether it is the music or the autobiographical content that induces changes in plasticity.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Full study: "Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Study" by Corinne E. Fischer, Nathan Churchill, Melissa Leggieri, Veronica Vuong, Michael Tau, Luis R. Fornazzari, Michael H. Thaut, and Tom A. Schweizer (DOI: 10.3233/JAD-210610), published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, Volume 84, Issue 2 (November 2021). The article is available online at: content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad210610.
About the University of Toronto
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About the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
Now in its 24th year of publication, the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (JAD) is an international multidisciplinary journal to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment, and psychology of Alzheimer’s disease. The journal publishes research reports, reviews, short communications, book reviews, and letters-to-the-editor. Groundbreaking research that has appeared in the journal includes novel therapeutic targets, mechanisms of disease, and clinical trial outcomes. JAD has a Journal Impact Factor of 4.472 according to Journal Citation Reports (Clarivate, 2021). The journal is published by IOS Press. j-alz.com
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