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Water Cooler: Why music is good for your brain

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 9, 2021

Caption for WC spotlight goes here.  (Pixabay)
Caption for WC spotlight goes here. (Pixabay)

Among the vast collection of online videos, there is one heartwarming trend that speaks to the power of music on our minds. These videos typically feature an aged person with some sort of age-related dementia. They may seem unresponsive, but then life rushes back into them once they hear a piece of music close to their hearts.

One video that circulated widely online featured 102-year-old Alice Barker, a former chorus dancer whose career took place during the Harlem Renaissance. A video of her dancing sometime in the 1930s was uploaded online and once Barker watches a few minutes of it she can’t resist tapping her hand to the music.

A video that recently went viral on TikTok featured 92-year-old Elaine Lebar, who also suffered from dementia. An off-camera voice tells viewers that Lebar is about to play the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and tells Lebar to go ahead. Lebar replies that she doesn’t know it, but then begins to play it masterfully, rarely glancing up at the sheet music.

Another recent viral video shows Prima Ballerina Marta C. González of the New York Ballet begin to vividly remember the choreography to “Swan Lake,” despite her Alzheimer’s. There are many of these types of videos, all illustrating the beautiful relationship our brains form with music.

Developments in neuroscience over the previous few decades have proven the profound effects of music on the human brain by documenting its ability to heal it. Music therapy is now a common clinical strategy to help the brain recover from injuries, regain lost speech or mobility and promote neuroplasticity and connectivity to help “rewire” the brain.

This works because music activates neural pathways across various regions that also coordinate mental responses to memory, language, attention, complex cognition and unsurprisingly, movement.

One of the reasons you may automatically start tapping your foot to music is because it stimulates neural networks called auditory-motor circuits, which help us process rhythms such as those found in movements, speech or music. Stimulating these networks helps ready the body for movement.

Multiple studies have found that music can help recover loss of mobility after a stroke because of this network of neural function. In a 1993 study, researchers attached electrodes to the bodies of patients who had a limp as a result of a stroke. They asked them to walk to the rhythm of Renaissance-era dance music and the data showed music had created more muscle activation in their weak side, helping balance their stride. Similar studies have also shown music can help quicken the walking pace of those suffering with Parkinson’s.

Some people with aphasia, the loss of ability to understand or express speech due to damage to the brain, have been found to still be able to sing even if they can’t speak. This is because musical memories are stored and music is processed on both hemispheres of the brain, whereas speech is primarily processed on the left side of the brain. Therapists take advantage of this with melodic intonation therapy which can train the right hemisphere to recover lost language skills by reintroducing communication through saying sentences in a sing-song voice.

A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that those with persistent cognitive studies following a moderate traumatic brain injury (mTBI) could increase activity and connectivity throughout the brain by practicing the piano. Seven volunteers with cognitive difficulties following an mBTI were asked to take two, 30-minute piano lessons per week for eight weeks with a required minimum of 15 minutes of daily practice at home.

The participants all had their injury two years prior and they all demonstrated significant improvement in neuropsychological tests as observed through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Music has always been known as a great art form and source of entertainment, but science has illuminated it as a powerful force for brain health.

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