As with the rest of the body, our brain is also affected by the aging process, but train the brain with various activities can help delay the progressive decline in cognition associated with age. A group of scientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva and EPFL have discovered, in particular, that play musical instruments or listen to music stimulates the production of gray matter and improves cognitive reserve, so it can slow down the cognitive decline.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers followed 132 retirees between 62 and 78 years old who met the requirement of not having previously received music lessons for more than six months, and who enrolled in a six-month piano and music awareness course. Their results have been published in NeuroImage Reports and open up new possibilities for promote active and healthy aging and delay brain aging.
The brain remodels itself throughout life and its morphology and neural connections vary depending on the environment and our experiences; for example, when we acquire new knowledge or after suffering a stroke. However, as we get older the “brain plasticity” decreases and the brain also loses gray matter, the place where valuable neurons are located.
“Grey matter increased in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including areas of the cerebellum involved in working memory.”
This is known as “atrofia cerebral” and it is characterized because little by little we suffer a loss of cognitive abilities and one of the functions that deteriorates the most is work memorywhich consists of the retention and manipulation of information for a short period of time with an objective, such as remembering a telephone number long enough to write it down or translating a sentence from a foreign language, and which is key in many cognitive processes.
Benefits of playing a musical instrument versus listening to music
Participants were randomly divided into two groups regardless of their motivation to play an instrument. The second group took active music listening lessons, which focused on instrument recognition and analysis of musical properties in a wide range of musical styles. Classes lasted one hour, and participants in both groups also had to do homework for half an hour a day.
“After six months, we found common effects for both interventions. Neuroimaging revealed increased gray matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including areas of the cerebellum involved in working memory. His performance increased by 6% and this result was directly related to the plasticity of the cerebellum”, declared Clara James, a private professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of UNIGE, tenured professor at the School of Health Sciences in Geneva and author of the work. .
The researchers also found that sleep quality, the number of lessons received throughout the intervention, and the amount of daily training had a positive impact on the degree of performance improvement. However, they found certain differences between the two groups. In those who received piano lessons, gray matter volume remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex—a key area for sound processing—while it decreased in the active listening group.
“In all cases, a global process of atrophy continued in all participants. Therefore, the musical interventions they cannot rejuvenate the brain, but only delay the aging of some of its regions”, specified Damien Marie, a scientific collaborator at the CIBM Center for Biomedical Imaging of the Faculty of Medicine and the Interfaculty Center for Affective Sciences. (CISA) of UNIGE, as well as at the Health University of Geneva (HES-SO Geneva), and first author of the study.
The authors of the study believe that this type of intervention, which is fun and accessible, should be prioritized as a measure to promote healthy aging. Their next goal is to assess the effects of these interventions in people with mild neurocognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal aging and dementia.