In the chapter we read in class, we saw how Stravinsky’s music had a disrupting effect on the listeners’ ears because it was distinct from the sounds they had heard in the past. There were dopaminergic neurons that fired when met with such sounds. But most importantly, these neurons then lead to plasticity in the auditory cortex. It points to an idea that maybe manipulating the use of music can lead to changes in other areas of the brain, not just the auditory cortex. Music plays a role in our daily lives. Who doesn’t love to listen to music while riding the metro to class every day? Those 20 minutes allow me to jam out to my favorite songs and destress for the day. I don’t know how I’d function without it. There have been studies that have shown that music is a great stress reliever (Linnemann et al., 2018).
This then made me wonder, if music plays such a big role on our lives (I mean the same 10 songs are trending worldwide), then could music go beyond just pleasure and truly have effects on our brain? Is there just a pleasant component to music or can it also be beneficial to us? I decided to look into a 2019 study that studied the effects of music on premature infants.
Pre-term babies have a variety of medical complications that can lead to them being in the NICU for weeks or months. While in the NICU, Lordier et al. set to test whether playing music to preterm infants would enhance their brain development (2019). With the use of fMRI testing, they test the brain connectivity in the subjects while they are in a resting state. They first measured the resting-state functional connectivity, which is a measure of the statistical dependencies between different brain regions. The greater the connectivity, the more brain maturity. They measured this prior to music exposure in normal and pre-term babies and found that pre-term babies’ connectivity was significantly less than the full-term babies. Within the connectivity calculation, there is a salience network which helps a person detect a certain stimuli and respond to it accordingly. The salience network connects 3 main areas, for simplification purposes, we can call them the auditory and sensorimotor networks, the thalamus, and the visual cortex. The salience network is made up of the insula, often involved in sensory processing and cognitive abilities, and the anterior cingulate cortex, often involved in emotion and information processing.
The researchers recruited 24 full-term infants and 39 preterm newborns. Within the preterm group, 20 received the musical enhancement while the other 19 did not. They had 3 distinct songs: a song for the baby to wake up to, a song for an awake baby, and a song that helps the baby fall asleep. The music was played to them for 5 days a week until they were released from the hospital.
The results show that there is an increased connectivity in the regions of the sensorimotor network and the thalamus, but not the in the orbitofrontal cortex/visual cortex. This data supports the idea that music does in fact enhance a premature baby’s brain network. Although this is a good place to start, I believe that further studies should be done to determine what type of music works best and to maybe follow the test subjects through the years to see the effects. Also, it was unclear why one area of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex did not show an increased connection since when comparing to adults, there is a significant amount of greater activity in this area (Brown et al., 2004).
So, now it makes so much sense why the people who first heard Stravinsky were in a riot, music exposure plays a big role in our lives from such an early age. This study showed us how music is not only something you hear for entertainment purposes; it also has the potential to actually enhance the brain connections of these infants. Prior studies have shown that adults are also able to enhance their brain networks by learning how to play music or by listening to pleasant music (Tanaka and Kirino, 2017). So now that we have seen the extent of music on brain region connectivity, you might want to start putting in your headphones. I know I won’t be feeling guilty for drowning out the world in those 20 minutes of riding in the stuffy metro.
Brown S, Martinez MJ, Parsons LM (2004) Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport 15, 2033–2037.
Dolezel, Jodi. “Premature Birth Facts and Statistics.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 24 June 2019, www.verywellfamily.com/premature-birth-facts-and-statistics-2748469.
Linnemann A, Ditzen B, Strahler J, Doerr JM, Nater UM (2015). Music listening as a means of stress reduction in daily life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 60:82–90.
Lordier L, Meskaldji D, Grouiller F, Pittet MP, Vollenweider A, Vasung L, Borradori-Tolsa C, Lazeyras F, Grandjean D, Van De Ville D, and Hüppi PS (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. PNAS. 116 (24) 12103-12108.
Tanaka S, Kirino E, Reorganization of the thalamocortical network in musicians. Brain Res. 1664, 48–54 (2017)