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THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC
(CNN) — Whether you are rocking out to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in your car or reading with Bach in your bedroom, music has a special ability to pump us up or calm us down.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s going on in our brains when we listen to music and how it produces such potent effects on the psyche.

“We’re using music to better understand brain function in general,” said Daniel Levitin, a prominent psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal.

Three studies published this month explore how the brain responds to music. The quest to dissect exactly what chemical processes occur when we put our headphones on is far from over, but scientists have come across some clues.

Health benefits of music
Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit? Levitin and colleagues published a meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggesting the answer is yes.

In one study reviewed, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Levitin cautioned that this is only one study, and more research needs to be done to confirm the results, but it points toward a powerful medicinal use for music.

“The promise here is that music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects,” Levitin said.

Levitin and colleagues also highlighted evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

What music we like
So music is good for us, but how do we judge what music is pleasurable? A study published in the journal Science suggests that patterns of brain activity can indicate whether a person likes what he or she is hearing.

Valorie Salimpoor, a researcher at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and former Levitin student, led a study in which participants listened to 60 excerpts of music they had never heard before while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The 19 participants were asked to indicate how much money they would spend on a given song when listening to the excerpts, while also allowing researchers to analyze patterns of brain activity through the fMRI. Such a small number of participants is common in an fMRI study for reasons of complexity and cost, although it suggests more research should be done.

The study authors highlight in their results a brain area called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations.

The study authors highlight in their results a brain area called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations.

“There is actually a network of activity that predicts whether or not you’re going to buy this music as you’re listening to the music,” Salimpoor said.

The more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the more money people said they were willing to spend on any particular song in the “auction” set-up that the researchers designed.

“This was an indicator that some sort of reward-related expectations were met or surpassed,” she said.

Another brain area called the superior temporal gyrus is intimately involved in the experience of music, and its connection to the nucleus accumbens is important, she said. The genres of music that a person listens to over a lifetime impact how the superior temporal gyrus is formed.

The superior temporal gyrus alone doesn’t predict whether a person likes a given piece of music, but it’s involved in storing templates from what you’ve heard before. For instance, a person who has heard a lot of jazz before is more likely to appreciate a given piece of jazz music than someone with a lot less experience.

“The brain kind of works like a music recommendation system,” Salimpoor said.

Levitin called the findings “interesting,” but views it as a refinement of what other laboratories have found in the past. He and Vinod Menon at Stanford University were the first to show the role of the nucleus accumbens in music in 2005.

Are we all hearing the same thing?
It seems intuitive that different people, based on their personalities, preferences and personal histories of listening to particular music, will have different experiences when exposed to a particular piece of music. Their attention to various details will vary and they might like different things about it.

But Levitin and his collaborators showed in a European Journal of Neuroscience study that, from the perspective of the brain, there may be more similarities among music listeners than you think.

“Despite our idiosyncrasies in listening, the brain experiences music in a very consistent fashion across subjects,” said Daniel Abrams, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Seventeen participants who had little or no music training took part in this study which, like Salimpoor’s, is small, but typical for an fMRI study. Participants listened to four symphonies by composer William Boyce of the late Baroque period, which the researchers chose because they reflect Western music but were likely to be unfamiliar to subjects.

Among participants, the researchers found synchronization in several key brain areas, and similar brain activity patterns in different people who listen to the same music. This suggests that the participants not only perceive the music the same way, but, despite whatever personal differences they brought to the table, there’s a level on which they share a common experience.

Brain regions involved in movement, attention, planning and memory consistently showed activation when participants listened to music — these are structures that don’t have to do with auditory processing itself. This means that when we experience of music, a lot of other things are going on beyond merely processing sound, Abrams said.

One resulting theory is that these brain areas are involved in holding particular parts of a song, such as the melody, in the mind while the rest of the piece of music plays on, Abrams said.

The results also reflect the power of music to unite people, Levitin said.

“It’s not our natural tendency to thrust ourselves into a crowd of 20,000 people, but for a Muse concert or a Radiohead concert we’ll do it,” Levitin said. “There’s this unifying force that comes from the music, and we don’t get that from other things.”

Further research might compare how individuals with healthy brains differ in their musical listening compared to people with autism or other brain disorders, Abrams said.

Further research might compare how individuals with healthy brains differ in their musical listening compared to people with autism or other brain disorders, Abrams said.

“The methods that we’ve used can be applied to understand how the brain tracks auditory information over time,” Abrams said.

What’s next
The next frontier in the neuroscience of music is to look more carefully at which chemicals in the brain are involved in music listening and performing, Levitin said, and in which parts of the brain are they active.

Any given neurochemical can have different function depending on its area of the brain, he said. For instance, dopamine helps increase attention in the frontal lobes, but in the limbic system it is associated with pleasure.

By using music as a window into the function of a healthy brain, researchers may gain insights into a slew of neurological and psychiatric problems, he said.

“Knowing better how the brain is organized, how it functions, what chemical messengers are working and how they’re working — that will allow us to formulate treatments for people with brain injury, or to combat diseases or disorders or even psychiatric problems,” Levitin said.

By Elizabeth Landau | CNN

http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/15/health/brain-music-research/index.html

Story Highlights
• Music was shown to lower anxiety more than medications in one study
• Brain activation patterns are related to how much people like particular songs
• Consistent activity patterns are seen when different people listen to the same music
• Researchers may gain insights into neurological and psychiatric issues

* * * * *

LEARNING YOUNG TO PLAY A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT CAN HAVE A LIFETIME OF BENEFITS

When children learn to play a musical instrument, they strengthen a range of auditory skills. Recent studies suggest that these benefits extend all through life, at least for those who continue to be engaged with music.

But a study published [in 2012] last month is the first to show that music lessons in childhood may lead to changes in the brain that persist years after the lessons stop.

Researchers at Northwestern University recorded the auditory brainstem responses of college students — that is to say, their electrical brain waves — in response to complex sounds. The group of students who reported musical training in childhood had more robust responses — their brains were better able to pick out essential elements, like pitch, in the complex sounds when they were tested. And this was true even if the lessons had ended years ago.

Indeed, scientists are puzzling out the connections between musical training in childhood and language-based learning — for instance, reading. Learning to play an instrument may confer some unexpected benefits, recent studies suggest.

We aren’t talking here about the “Mozart effect,” the claim that listening to classical music can improve people’s performance on tests. Instead, these are studies of the effects of active engagement and discipline. This kind of musical training improves the brain’s ability to discern the components of sound — the pitch, the timing and the timbre.

“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” said Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

Skill in appreciating the subtle qualities of sound, even against a complicated and noisy background, turns out to be important not just for a child learning to understand speech and written language, but also for an elderly person struggling with hearing loss.

In a study of those who do keep playing, published this summer, researchers found that as musicians age, they experience the same decline in peripheral hearing, the functioning of the nerves in their ears, as nonmusicians. But older musicians preserve the brain functions, the central auditory processing skills that can help you understand speech against the background of a noisy environment.

“We often refer to the ‘cocktail party’ problem — or imagine going to a restaurant where a lot of people are talking,” said Dr. Claude Alain, assistant director of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and one of the authors of the study. “The older adults who are musically trained perform better on speech in noise tests — it involves the brain rather than the peripheral hearing system.”

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are approaching the soundscape from a different point of view, studying the genetics of absolute, or perfect, pitch, that ability to identify any tone. Dr. Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics who directs the study there, and her colleagues are trying to tease out both the genetics and the effects of early training.

“The immediate question we’ve been trying to get to is what are the variants in people’s genomes that could predispose an individual to have absolute pitch,” she said. “The hypothesis, further, is that those variants will then manifest as absolute pitch with the input of early musical training.”

Indeed, almost everyone who qualifies as having truly absolute pitch turns out to have had musical training in childhood (you can take the test and volunteer for the study at http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/study/).

Alexandra Parbery-Clark, a doctoral candidate in Dr. Kraus’s lab and one of the authors of a paper published this year on auditory working memory and music, was originally trained as a concert pianist. Her desire to go back to graduate school and study the brain, she told me, grew out of teaching at a French school for musically talented children, and observing the ways that musical training affected other kinds of learning.

“If you get a kid who is maybe 3 or 4 years old and you’re teaching them to attend, they’re not only working on their auditory skills but also working on their attention skills and their memory skills — which can translate into scholastic learning,” she said.

Now Ms. Parbery-Clark and her colleagues can look at recordings of the brain’s electrical detection of sounds, and they can see the musically trained brains producing different — and stronger — responses. “Now I have more proof, tangible proof, music is really doing something,” she told me. “One of my lab mates can look at the computer and say, ‘Oh, you’re recording from a musician!’ ”

Many of the researchers in this area are themselves musicians interested in the plasticity of the brain and the effects of musical education on brain waves, which mirror the stimulus sounds. “This is a response that actually reflects the acoustic elements of sound that we know carry meaning,” Professor Kraus said.

There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.

Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.

“We want music to be recognized for what it can be in a person’s life, not necessarily, ‘Oh, we want you to have better cognitive skills, so we’re going to put you in music,’ ” Ms. Parbery-Clark said. “Music is great, music is fantastic, music is social — let them enjoy it for what it really is.”

By Perri Klass, M.D.

http://health.heraldtribune.com/2012/09/13/learning-young-to-play-a-musical-instrument-can-have-a-lifetime-of-benefits/

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