In 2020, an extraordinary video went viral. It starred Marta Cinta González Saldaña, a former ballet dancer suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease in her later years. In the video, Saldaña performs a piece by Tchaikovsky Swan Lake and suddenly she wakes up in a flash and starts going through a dance routine that she presumably repeated over and over in her youth.
These types of clips have been shared for years and highlight the amazing way music can revive dormant neural pathways in elderly subjects with severe forms of dementia. And although music therapy is now a common practice in nursing homes, little research has actually focused on the neural mechanisms behind the phenomena, and in particular on the types of music that could optimize the potential benefits for the brain.
Primera Bailarina – Ballet in New York – Años 60 – Música para Despertar
A new study, led by Psyche Loui of Northeastern University’s Music Imaging and Neural Dynamics Lab, attempted to answer two specific questions about this incredible music-triggered phenomenon. How does an eight-week controlled music therapy program influence activity and connectivity between the auditory and reward areas of the brain? And, are the beneficial effects of music magnified when music is self-selected, focusing on songs that are particularly meaningful to an individual.
To investigate, the research team recruited a small cohort of cognitively healthy older adults. Together with a music therapist, each volunteer created two playlists of music – one called ‘energizing’ and the other ‘relaxing’.
The cohort was instructed to listen to music from their self-selected playlists for one hour each day, over the course of eight weeks. The hour-long daily music experience was designed to be focused, so each subject was asked to pay attention to their moods, emotions, and memories while listening to their playlists. It wasn’t just about playing tunes in the background while doing daily chores.
At the start and end of the study, each participant also took part in a brain imaging test where they listened to 24 different audio clips. Six of these exceptions were self-selected by the participant, while the others were other pieces of music spanning many different genres selected by the researchers.
In an email to New Atlas, Loui explained how her team’s findings revealed that the eight-week music intervention led to increased connectivity in key brain regions.
“We found changes in auditory connectivity to the reward system, specifically the connectivity between the auditory network and the medial prefrontal cortex (which is part of the reward system) was increased after the intervention,” Loui noted. “We also found that the right executive control network, which includes regions important for attention and executive function, became more accurate at representing music after the intervention.”
According to Loui, this study is the first time that a music-based intervention has been shown to lead to longitudinal improvements in connectivity between these particular brain networks. From a clinical perspective, these findings are exciting, as decreased connectivity and activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is seen in a number of neurodegenerative diseases, as well as psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and the Depression.
The study’s other major finding was that self-selected music is much more effective at engaging these brain pathways, compared to other, less familiar types of music. Loui also added that the most effective self-selected music seems to be songs related to a participant’s younger years.
“…we asked participants to listen to approximately one-third of self-selected music and two-thirds of researcher-selected music, while having their brains scanned, so that we could compare brain activity between self-selected music and music selected by others, [and] we found that self-selected music was much more effective at engaging the brain,” Loui explained. “The most effective music tends to be that of adolescence and early adulthood for the participant.”
The discovery that the music most effective at reviving neural pathways in old age is music that one listened to in one’s youth is interestingly reminiscent of a large number of studies illustrating how music and cultural taste are fundamentally formed at adolescence. Film theorist David Bordwell once called this phenomenon “the law of the adolescent window”, and these new findings in brain imaging certainly affirm that certain neural pathways related to cultural experiences are truly locked down during these years of key training.
“Between 13 and 18, a window opens for each of us,” Bordwell wrote. “The cultural hobbies that appeal to us then, those that attract and even obsess us, will always have a powerful hold. We may expand our tastes as we grow out of those years – we should, anyway – but the sports, hobbies, books, TV, movies and music that we loved, we will love. still.
A key takeaway from the study is that there can be no one-size-fits-all strategy for music therapy, Loui pointed out. It is therefore important to listen to music that you enjoy, but this study cannot answer exactly the clinical effectiveness of music therapy as a treatment for patients with dementia.
A study published last year by researchers at the University of Toronto explored an intervention similar to Loui’s work, but in Alzheimer’s patients with very early stage cognitive decline. This was a small study comparing the effect between musicians and non-musicians of three weeks of daily hour-long listening sessions with familiar music.
While brain activity was slightly different in participants with a music history, there were distinct signs of cognitive improvement in both groups after three weeks of music therapy. The study’s lead author, Michael Thaut, said listening to familiar music in his later years could be considered a kind of brain gym.
“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or you’ve never played an instrument, music is a key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” Thaut said. “It’s simple: keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those tracks that are especially meaningful to you. Make it your brain gym.
Of course, it’s too early to suggest that just listening to your favorite music can help fight the neurodegeneration associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s. Loui, however, is looking to take these new findings one step further with follow-up investigations to see if things can be added to a music listening session to amplify the effects on the brain.
“We are looking to conduct a control intervention where there is no music listening,” Loui said. “We are also looking to augment this music-based intervention with multimodal stimulation, such as using lights to add to music to enhance the experience of rhythmic stimulation on the brain.”
The new study has been published in the journal Scientific reports.