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Dr. Claude Alain Dr. Claude Alain, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute

Boosting brain health through music

Playing an instrument is known to have beneficial effects on the brain, such as helping a person maintain their listening abilities and warding off the onset of dementia as they age. But we don’t know why that is or how to best use music and music lessons to treat neurological disorders.

Baycrest researchers are a step closer to unlocking this mystery that could pave the way towards a prescription for music lessons or open jam sessions.

Strengthen your brain with music (and learning another language)

Whether you learn to play a musical instrument or speak another language, you’re training your brain to be more efficient, suggests recent research by Dr. Claude Alain, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

According to their findings, musicians and people who are bilingual utilized fewer brain resources when completing a working memory task.

“These findings show that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform the same task, which could also protect them against cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia,” says Dr. Alain. “A person’s experiences, whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument or another language, can shape how the brain functions and which networks are used.”

This research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

As next steps, Dr. Alain and his team continue to explore whether art and musical training will lead to changes in brain function.

“Our findings are an amazing reminder that biology isn’t destiny – there’s so much we can do to shape our health, and especially to help prevent degenerative brain diseases like dementia,” says Dr. Alain.
Music is processed and remembered like no other activity and our memory for it is usually preserved longer than our memory for other things.

Learning about music's role in the brain

As a long-time musician, Ricky Chow, lab manager and research assistant with Dr. Alain’s lab, has always been interested in learning about the science behind music and how it can benefit others.

At the Rotman Research Institute, Chow has combined his love of music with an interest in psychology. During his time, Chow has had a chance to work with the latest technologies to study the brain and explore innovative intervention ideas using these tools, such as tapping into listening to music and brain stimulation to improve memory.

“During my time at Baycrest, I’ve had the chance to conduct interesting research that explores how music can help play a role in memory in older adults and those at risk of dementia,” says Chow. “By understanding the benefits of music and how it affects our brain and behaviour, there are many roles in healthcare that I’m interested in which could utilize these findings.”

Providing personalized care experiences through music therapy

Chrissy Pearson has a front-row seat to the power of music. As a certified music therapist at Baycrest, Pearson works with a spectrum of older adult clients, including patients with dementia.

“We see that people with dementia, even those at a late stage, are able to respond to the music that is significant to them, even remembering and singing the lyrics of a song,” says Pearson. “Music is processed and remembered like no other activity and our memory for it is usually preserved longer than our memory for other things.”

Depending on the person’s needs, music therapy can be provided in group or individual sessions. Regardless of the session format, different techniques are used for each person to elicit a response, such as clapping hands, tapping to the beat, smiling or making eye contact with the person singing.

“We know music impacts the brain and certified music therapists are trained to use music to unlock connections to memories, emotions and community,” says Pearson. “Music therapy can bring people together, even those who are unfamiliar with each other, to form a connection that is different than participating in other activities or interventions.”

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With additional funding, researchers could pinpoint the specific benefits of musical training and create programs to help maintain brain health.

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