An older female adult listens to music on her phone via headphonesShare on Pinterest
Practicing and actively listening to music may have cognitive benefits. BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy
  • A new study finds that playing and listening to music can help slow the decline of cognitive function in older people.
  • Musical activities increased the brain’s gray matter in some areas, increasing its plasticity, although it did not reverse or stop brain atrophy due to aging.
  • Multi-modal activities, including music, can deliver needed exercise to multiple brain regions.

Our ability to learn new things and remember new information depends on the brain’s plasticity, its ability to reorganize connections, or pathways, between neurons in order to encode and store fresh information. As we age, brain plasticity tends to diminish, making it more difficult to learn new things. This is accompanied by a loss of the gray matter in which our neurons reside, leading to brain atrophy and further cognitive degeneration.

A new study has found that intensive music playing and active listening can slow the loss of gray matter in the brain, prolonging its plasticity.

The randomized, controlled, six-month trial conducted by researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland resulted in a significant increase in gray matter volume in four brain areas. These areas are linked to high-level cognitive function, and include the cerebellum.

The type of memory most immediately affected by a loss of plasticity is “working memory.” This is the form of memory that allows you to recall information long enough to perform an action. An example would be realizing you were out of apples and being able to remember this long enough to jot it down on a grocery list.

In the study, the participants’ working memory improved on cognitive tests by an average of 6%. The researchers attribute this to an increase in the individual’s cerebellum, a region associated with working memory.

Brain plasticity is also closely tied to a person’s cognitive reserve, their ability to cope with damage and decline.

The study is published in Neuroimage: Reports.

The trial involved 132 participants aged 62 to 78 years old. None had six months or more of musical training during their lifetimes. All were right-handed people who were in good physical and mental health, retired, and were not dependent on hearing aids. The participants were divided into two equal groups.

The first group received one-hour piano lessons each week with the expectation that its members would practice five days a week for 30 minutes.

The remaining participants practiced music awareness in active listening sessions. They were taught basic music concepts, including learning to identify individual instruments. More advanced instruction was provided for recognizing musical styles and examples of different musical eras and learning to perceive the emotion in musical examples.

At the end of the six months, all participants were tested for cognitive function. They also received Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans that allowed the study authors to observe gray matter changes.

For an investigation of maintaining or restoring brain plasticity, music has some special advantages.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Damien Marie, explained:

“Learning to play an instrument or actively listening to music are cross-modal activities, eliciting not only the closely related sensorimotor domains (close or near transfer, e.g., auditory processing) but also more distant ones, for instance, processing speed, affective domains, memory, language, executive function, or abstract reasoning, etc.”

In addition, music has “rewarding aspects that are important for motivation. The affective and rewarding aspects of musical activities offer an intrinsic incentive, supported by neurochemistry (e.g., dopamine) that may reinforce learning,” Dr. Marie pointed out.

While there have been previous studies regarding music and brain plasticity, this is the first that assesses results through neuroimaging as well as behavioral metrics. It is also a large study designed to be reproducible by others for verification, and it was long enough to deliver benefits.

“We know that frequency and duration of (music) training are critical for learning,” said Dr. Marie.

He also pointed out that the study’s conclusions are even-handed, describing both positive and negative observations. For example, the study found that despite some improvement in gray matter volume, all participants continued to exhibit brain atrophy due to age.

“I believe it is important to be transparent, especially regarding the conclusions we can make at the big-picture level,” said Dr. Marie.

“In this paper, we explain that we can slow down the aging process in some brain regions with music, that it relates to working memory and brain plasticity, but that our brain will not miraculously get younger with these interventions either. Atrophy is still present.”
— Dr. Damien Marie

Dr. Marie also felt that the social benefits associated with playing or listening to music in the study’s groups were important for overall well-being, health, and happiness.

The researchers observed in the piano-playing group that the amount of gray matter in the right primary auditory cortex exhibited no reduction after six months.

However, the same was not true of the music-listening group, who lost gray matter volume.

Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of Healthy Brain Clinic, who was not involved in the study, explained:

“Learning to play a musical instrument involves complex sensorimotor tasks, including finger movements, hand-eye coordination, and auditory feedback processing. These tasks may engage the right auditory cortex in a more intensive and prolonged manner compared to passive music listening, which mainly involves auditory processing.”

“This suggests that different types of music interventions may have distinct effects on specific brain regions, which could have implications for designing effective interventions for cognitive health in older adults,” he added.

The study suggests that multi-modal activities such as music that give multiple brain regions a workout are most likely to benefit plasticity, especially those that involve sensorimotor and physical domains.

“Research has shown that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, such as learning a new language, acquiring new skills, or engaging in new hobbies, can have cognitive benefits, including improvements in memory, attention, and executive functions,” Dr. Trinh noted.

“If an elderly person would ask me what he/she should do, I would say ‘follow your heart’. Do something that you always wanted to do because motivation is very important for learning, which will be associated with brain plasticity and cognitive reserve benefits.”
— Dr. Damien Marie

He added that if learning occurs in a group setting, it may be even more constructive since meeting new people is by itself stimulating.