About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

July 27, 2014

Music vs. Alzheimer

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

"I hope (with no evidence) that playing the flute (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters." (CAN MUSIC HEAL? July 6)

That hope made sense to me in several ways partly because music is a language and multilingualism has been found in studies to delay Alzheimer's Disease.

My hope is also supported by a study I just stumbled upon by psychologists at the University of Toronto. After testing middle to older-age adults, they concluded:
Musicians outperformed non-musicians on [several transfer tasks] and on a composite measure of cognitive control. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved . . . cognitive functioning in older adults.
("Transfer" means the transfer of skills learned in one task, like playing the flute, to others like, say, building a birdhouse, though they didn't test those particular tasks.)  

The article is understandable by anyone without specialized training. It reviews evidence supporting other benefits of playing music at all ages. It is a good example of what I said (July 6) about the difference between hopes, aims, claims, programs, unequivocal beliefs, ultimate goals, and evidence-based science--when you talk about the reasons for playing and listening to music. 

It isn't, however, the 'final answer' to any question, just one small piece that needs to be confirmed in the mosaic of understanding music in the brain, which is one only aspect of brain function. It points in the direction of more experiments.

Even more accessible to the general reader is Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen in The Atlantic (July/August). In a wonderful article she mentions a 2007 study that found that orchestral musicians have a more active Broca's area of neocortex, one of the areas associated with language. Creative people more likely have mood disorders and families with schizophrenia.

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