Sound Health: Music and the Mind

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language–we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

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From the Archives: What “Neuroeducation” Needs

We have long been interested in education and the arts, and a decade ago we funded a series of pilot studies to look for ways to measure whether training in the arts changed the brain in ways that would transfer to other cognitive abilities. In 2009, we published the results of our Arts and Cognition Consortium—nine investigators at seven major universities, who found tentative signs of benefits, including transfer, that they continue to pursue.

In May 2009, we helped support The Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s hosting of the inaugural Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit, “to explore the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, the arts, and learning.” Some of our consortium scientists presented their research, and more than 300 educators, scientists, school administrators, and policy makers shared their perspectives on how to get a handle on this rather new amalgam, “neuro-education.”

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AAAS: Brain-changing power of music prompts calls for more education, therapy

Growing evidence that music training can enhance certain mental abilities, can alleviate the symptoms of learning disorders, and can restore lost functions in people with neurological damage has prompted calls to increase school music programs and therapeutic treatments.

At a press conference Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nina Kraus, a communications disorder professor at Northwestern University, and Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, summarized recent research outlining the profound ability of music to enhance or restore brain pathways and the implications of those findings for health and education.

Kraus pointed out that music is reflected literally by the brain. After hearing a sound, a person's brain waves come to mirror that melody, she said, playing several pairs of music sequences and brain waves to demonstrate. But music exerts its most profound effects after extensive training, by increasing not just the ability to learn and play music but also facility with memory, attention, and pattern recognition. In fact, she said, her work suggests that intensive music training may be key to treating or ameliorating childhood learning disabilities, as it greatly enhances the abilities that suffer the most in those conditions.

In a recent study, for instance, she found that trained musicians have a much greater ability to discern speech in noisy situations, such as crowded restaurants or bars, than those without any musical experience, a kind of pattern-recognition task some children also have great difficulty with. The finding, which appeared in the December 2009 issue of the journal Ear and Hearing, echoes research her group presented at the 2009 Society for Neuroscience meeting showing that trained musicians have enhanced abilities to focus on and memorize sounds, other abilities lacking in people with dyslexia, autism, and related disorders. This suggests, she said, that elementary and secondary schools are making a mistake when they cut out music programs. "The education and remediation possibilities of music training are very encouraging," she said.

Schlaug played several videos showing the power of melodic intonation therapy (MIT) to rewire seriously damaged brains. As we have described previously, MIT is a technique developed for treating nonfluent aphasia, or an inability to speak due to damage, usually from a stroke, to the language-processing regions in the brain's left hemisphere. During the treatment, a music therapist teaches the patient to feel out the melody of specific phrases by tapping his or her hand and then to repeat the phrases aloud in a singsong voice. Typically, the treatment course is intense, consisting of 70 to 80 sessions over several weeks.

The results can be spectacular; most patients, Schlaug said, recover significant amounts of speaking ability, and one patient even felt comfortable enough to make a short public speech. In one particularly compelling video clip, a man went from mumbling nonsense phrases to being able to recite his full mailing address after 75 therapy sessions. "These kinds of music-making therapies are very useful for patients suffering from strokes and other neurological disorders," Schlaug said. "It engages parts of the brain that are not normally engaged and links parts of the brain that are not normally linked."

Although the therapy has shown promising results, it is still in the early stages of testing, Schlaug added. If it pans out, tens of thousands of stroke victims could benefit from the therapy each year in the United States alone. The true challenge then, he said, would be gaining widespread traction for the treatment, by getting therapists to feel comfortable with the oddness of singing with their patients and by ensuring that insurance companies reimburse people for MIT sessions.

Schlaug has been a pioneer in the field of music and the brain studies; some of his research is funded by the Dana Foundation. Mentioned only obliquely in his presentation, for instance, was a four-year study he is helping to conduct that compares the cognitive abilities of children undergoing regular music training with those who are not. Not surprisingly, he and his colleagues have found that, after 15 months, children who practice music showed more improvements in motor skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks related directly to music. But after 30 months, the results seem more in line with those of Kraus and her lab, with the children beginning to show suggestive, though not significant, signs of "far transfer" benefits—increases in most distantly related skills, such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning.

–Aalok Mehta

How music rewires the brain

Evidence continues to grow that musical training may not
only serve as a powerful tool for treating mental illnesses but may also rewire
the brain to be more nimble at learning math and other subjects.

This ability to alter brain connections was the focus of a
recent “Music and the Brain” lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington,
D.C. Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor
of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical
School, outlined three lines of neurological research into musical experience
and explained why scientists are optimistic about its potential for education
and rehabilitation.

“Music making engages quite a lot of real estate in the
brain,” he said. “We wanted to know if everyone has the potential to become an
accomplished musician, or if [musicians] start off with an atypical brain.”

In adults, for instance, he said, musicians with a long
history of practice tend to have bigger corpus callosa—the bundles of fibers
that connect the right and left halves of the brain—as well as enhanced motor
and auditory processing areas than do non-musicians.
Many of these changes were specific to the primary type of instrument used by a
musician. But everyone seems able to benefit: Adult non-musicians who took a
crash course in piano showed changes in their sequencing, musical and math
abilities even after just two weeks.

Schlaug also outlined results from a four-year study of
young children he is conducting with Ellen
, a psychology professor at Boston University. After 15 months,
children who began practicing music showed, as expected, improvements in motor
skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks. There were also suggestive,
but not statistically significant, evidence that the children were beginning to
excel in nonmusical tasks such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning. This type
of extension into a nonrelated mental ability is known as “far transfer.”

We have covered many of these findings in the context of
neuroeducation, a new field that seeks to use neuroscience findings to improve
teaching practices. Schlaug and Winner, for instance, were featured speakers
at the “Learning, Arts and the
” summit in May, where they presented their 15-month data.

Since then, however, data from 30 months into the child
study has been collected; although it is still in the process of being
analyzed, far transfer trends seem to be continuing, Schlaug said, increasing
interest in music’s potential educational benefits. Since the May conference,
Schlaug and his colleagues have also compiled videos demonstrating the extent
and rate of improvement in musical ability in their study participants.

Schlaug also presented a video showing how extensive rhythm
and singing therapy helped a four-year old boy with autism speak his very first
words. “Music,” Schlaug said, “may provide alternative entry into broken brain
systems that may not be linking up properly.” (The use of music for autism is
just the tip of the iceberg; music is also being used as treatment for spinal
cord injuries, stroke and other conditions. Look for more extensive coverage of
these therapies in the coming weeks.)

Schlaug’s presentation was the final “Music and the
” lecture of 2009. The series, presented by the Library of Congress
and the Dana Foundation, will resume on Jan. 21 with “Music, Memories, and the
Brain,” in which Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, will outlining
brain imaging results from people who have experienced musical “trances.” As an
early Christmas present, the LOC has released free podcasts
of earlier lectures in the series.

-Aalok Mehta

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