When he wrote “Get Back”, Paul McCartney I would never have predicted how useful or relevant music would become for music therapists. The song’s chorus – “Go back to where you once belonged” – could very well be a therapist encouraging a dementia patient to recall a distant memory. In new research, Psyche Loui, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University, is trying to do just that. Her study was published in the magazine Scientific Reports.
The playlists were highly personalized and featured a combination of songs selected by participants, ranging from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, and a pre-selected mix of classic pieces, pop and rock songs, and new compositions created by Hubert Ho, associate professor of teaching at music at Northeastern University. Participants would then rate each song based on how much they liked it and how familiar it was.
“The most important lesson we learned from the music therapist was that there is no ‘one size fits all’ type of music that works best,” Loui said.
What the researchers found was impressive: the music was essentially creating an ear canal directly to the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain’s reward center. Notably, the medial prefrontal cortex “is one of the areas that loses its activity and functional connectivity in older adults, especially people with dementia,” Loui said.
Music that was familiar and appreciated tended to activate the auditory and reward areas more. However, the songs the participants selected provided an even stronger connection between these two areas of the brain.
“This could be the central mechanism for the changes that happen in the brain when you’re listening to music and when you’re listening to music consistently, persistently, and consciously throughout an intervention,” Loui said.
She hopes this study, one of the first to document the neurological changes from prolonged exposure to music-based intervention, could have a significant impact on a field that is rapidly gaining prominence. The National Institute of Health (NIH) is currently promoting initiatives around music therapy, and the AARP’s Global Brain Health Council (a US interest group that focuses on issues affecting people over 50) recently convened a panel, on which Loui served, to examine evidence of the influence of music on brain health. The panel eventually formed recommendations on how people aged 50 and over can incorporate music into their lives to promote mental well-being.
Music’s ability to soothe the elderly and people with mental illness is well documented, Loui said. But what is less known is how and to what extent music can help improve memory, cognition and executive function (management of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving, as well as planning and execution).
“That’s something we’re working on right now, and I think there might be something about the fact that music is an art that develops over time,” Loui stated. “For example, you are listening to a beat and then you can tap your toes to the accompaniment. This type of process engages the brain’s reward and cognitive systems in ways that can be beneficial for long-term cognitive functions.”
Loui hopes to extend his study to older adults with cognitive and neurodegenerative disorders — people who may benefit even more from the effects of music therapy. “We’re trying to design these new therapies to take advantage of the rhythmic properties of music and the rhythmic properties of the brain, and tuning neural populations in relation to the acoustic signals of music could be helpful in improving cognition,” she said.
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