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Cognitive decline: Playing and/or listening to music can slow it

By Lee Cleveland, FightSaga - April 29, 2023

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Geneva, HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland has found that playing and listening to music can slow down the decline of cognitive function in older individuals. The trial involved 132 participants between the ages of 62 and 78 years old, all of whom were in good physical and mental health, right-handed, and retired, with no more than six months of musical training in their lifetimes and no dependence on hearing aids.

The participants were divided into two groups. The first group received one-hour piano lessons every week, with the expectation that they would practice for 30 minutes five days a week. The remaining participants practiced music awareness in active listening sessions, learning to identify individual instruments, recognize musical styles and examples from different musical eras, and perceive the emotion in musical examples.

At the end of the six-month trial, all participants were tested for cognitive function, and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans were performed, allowing the study authors to observe gray matter changes.

The results revealed that intensive music playing and active listening can slow the loss of gray matter in the brain, prolonging its plasticity.

The trial resulted in a significant increase in gray matter volume in four brain areas linked to high-level cognitive function, including the cerebellum. The type of memory most immediately affected by a loss of plasticity is “working memory,” which is the form of memory that allows an individual to recall information long enough to perform an action. In the study, the participants’ working memory improved on cognitive tests by an average of 6%, attributed to an increase in the individual’s cerebellum, a region associated with working memory.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Damien Marie, explained that learning to play an instrument or actively listening to music are cross-modal activities, eliciting not only the closely related sensorimotor domains but also more distant ones, such as processing speed, affective domains, memory, language, executive function, or abstract reasoning, etc. In addition, music has rewarding aspects that are important for motivation. The effective and rewarding aspects of musical activities offer an intrinsic incentive, supported by neurochemistry, that may reinforce learning.

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.

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. Also, 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.

The study’s authors suggest that following one’s heart and doing something that an individual has always wanted to do may be beneficial, particularly if learning occurs in a group setting, as meeting new people is by itself stimulating.