Music, the universal language of mood, emotion and desire, connects with us through a wide variety of neural systems. Researchers have discovered evidence that music stimulates specific regions of the brain responsible for memory, language and motor control. They have located specific areas of mental activity linked to the emotional responses elicited by music. Now new research conclusions have identified how the affect of music could replicate the effects of hormone replacement therapy in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The August 7 issue of Medical Hypotheses reports these conclusions resulting from experience that has shown music to be useful in therapy for neuropsychiatric disorders resulting from both functional and organic origins. However, the mechanisms of the action of music on the brain have remained largely unknown despite an increase in scientific studies on the topic.
The results of past studies have clarified that music influences and affects cranial nerves in humans from fetus to adult. To explain how it works at the cellular level, researchers proposed that the neurogenesis, regeneration and repair of the cerebral nerves are the result of adjustments through the secretion of steroid hormones ultimately leading to cerebral plasticity.
Music affects levels of such steroids as cortisone, testosterone and estrogen, and it is believed that music also affects the receptor genes related to these substances and related proteins. Unlike supplementing the brain through hormone replacement therapy which can have side effects, music is natural, and its existence is universal and mundane. If music can be used in medical care, the application of such a safe and inexpensive therapeutic option is limitless.
It has also been shown that music is able to improve the mood state of people with psychiatric disorders, ameliorate the cognitive deficits in those with dementia, and increase motor functioning in Parkinson patients, as documented in the September 18, 2007 edition of Behavioural Pharmacology. Researchers investigated the effect of music on brain neurotrophin production and behavior.
They exposed young adult mice to music with a slow rhythm for 21 consecutive days. At the end of the treatment period, the mice were tested for passive avoidance learning. The music-exposed mice showed increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the hippocampus. Music exposure also significantly enhanced learning performance as measured by the passive avoidance test. They concluded that music exposure might be of help in several central nervous system pathologies.
Music influences the neuronal development in children
It was Luciano Pavarotti who said, “If children are not introduced to music at an early age, I believe something fundamental is actually being taken from them.” Music affects mood, concentration, creativity, and influences the ability to learn.
Neuronal connections in the brain of the infant and young child are formed through experiences and strengthened through repetitions until predictable pathways of cognitive processing are established. Once these pathways are formed, it is as though they are hardwired and cannot be changed without much effort. Music and rhythm is essential to the developing brain as it helps to create and strengthen more neural connections that allow for auditory processing. The act of processing music stimuli elaborates these neural connections in the brain, influencing processing quality of auditory stimuli over the lifetime.
The biology of music
“Undeniably, there is a biology of music,” according to Harvard University Medical School neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo. He sees it as beyond question that there is specialization within the brain for the processing of music. Music is a biological part of life as surely as it is an aesthetic part.
Studies as far back as 1990 found that the brain responds to harmony. Using a PET scanner to monitor changes in neural activity, neuroscientists at McGill University discovered that the part of the brain activated by music is dependent on whether or not the music is pleasant or dissonant.
The brain grows in response to musical training in the way a muscle responds to exercise. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston discovered that male musicians have larger brains than men who have not had extensive musical training. The cerebellums, that part of the brain containing 70 percent of the total brain’s neurons, were 5 percent larger in expert male musicians.
Researchers have found evidence of the power of music to affect neural activity no matter where they looked in the brain, from primitive regions found in animals to more recently evolved areas thought to be strictly human such as the frontal lobes. Harmony, melody and rhythm invoke distinct patterns of brain activity.
This new research is beginning to help those involved in cognitive rehabilitation. Music is now used with patients with stroke, schizophrenia, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury among others.
Barbara L. Minton
Anisha Chirmule, “The Influence of Music on Neurons,” Serendip
Marsha L. Miller Ph.D., “Investigating the Neurobiology of Music: Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Modulation in the Hippocampus of Young Adult Mice” the HD Lighthouse
Robert Lee Hotz, “Music Shows Potential to Heal Damaged Brains” (www.neilslade.com)