One of the concerns about ageing is cognitive decline. This particularly affects working memory, involved in cognitive functioning and daily living. A new study has discovered that music can help alter cognitive decline in healthy older adults by stimulating the production of grey matter.
Throughout our lives, our environment and lived experiences such as when we learn a new skill or overcome the consequences of a stroke influence morphological changes in our brains. However, with age, “brain plasticity”, a process that involves adaptive structural and functional changes to the brain, decreases. The brain loses grey matter, which houses the neurons. This is called brain atrophy, according to Science Daily.
Cognitive decline occurs and during this, working memory is one of the most affected processes. Working memory is defined as the process wherein people briefly retain and manipulate information to achieve a goal. The research team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva and EPFL have shown that music practice and active listening could prevent working memory decline.
The study participants were 132 retired people aged between 62 and 78 years who had never practiced music before. They were enrolled in piano and music awareness training for six months. The findings were published in NeuroImage: Reports.
''We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. Indeed, even a brief learning experience in the course of one's life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results'', explains Damien Marie, first author of the study, a research associate at the CIBM Center for Biomedical Imaging, the Faculty of Medicine and the Interfaculty Center for Affective Sciences (CISA) of UNIGE, according to Science Daily.
Regardless of their motivation to play a musical instrument, the participants were randomly assigned to two groups. The second group were provided with active listening lessons focused on instrument recognition and analysis of musical properties in diverse musical styles. Each class lasted for one hour. Participants in both groups had to do homework for half an hour a day.
After six months, the researchers found common effects between the two groups. Neuroimaging showed an increase in grey matter in four regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Furthermore, their performance increased by 6%, which directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum.
The researchers also found that quality of sleep, the number of lessons followed over the course of the intervention, and the daily training quantity, had a positive impact on the degree of performance improvement, according to Science Daily.
However, there was also a difference between the two groups. Among the pianists, the volume of grey matter remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex -- a key region for sound processing, whereas it decreased in the active listening group. ''In addition, a global brain pattern of atrophy was present in all participants. Therefore, we cannot conclude that musical interventions rejuvenate the brain. They only prevent ageing in specific regions,'' says Damien Marie.
The results show that practicing and listening to music can enhance brain plasticity and cognitive reserve. The current findings are similar to a 2022 study in which researchers from University of Toronto (U of T) and Unity Health Toronto demonstrated that repeated listening to personally meaningful music induces beneficial brain plasticity in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer's disease, according to U of T News.
Importantly, the authors of the current study believe that these playful and accessible interventions should become a major policy priority for healthy ageing, according to Science Daily.