It found that changes in the brain’s neural pathways correlated with increased memory performance on neuropsychological tests, supporting the clinical potential of personalized, music-based interventions for people with dementia.
For the study, 14 participants—eight non-musicians and six musicians—listened to a curated playlist of autobiographically relevant, long-known music for one hour a day over the course of three weeks. Participants underwent structural and task-based functional MRI before and after the listening period to determine changes to brain function and structure. During these scans, they listened to clips of both long-known and newly composed music. Heard one hour before scanning, the new music was similar in style yet held no personal meaning.
When participants listened to the recently heard, newly composed music, brain activity occurred mainly in the auditory cortex, centered on the listening experience. However, when participants listened to long-known music, there was significant activation in the deep-encoded network of the prefrontal cortex, a clear indication of executive cognitive engagement. There was also strong engagement in subcortical brain regions, older areas minimally affected by Alzheimer’s disease pathology.
The research team reported structural and functional changes in neural pathways of study participants, notably in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center where deep cognitive processes occur. Researchers showed that exposing the brains of patients with early-stage cognitive decline to autobiographically salient music activated a distinct neural network—a musical network—comprised of diverse brain regions that showed differences in activation after a period of daily music listening. Differences were also observed in the brain’s connections and white matter, providing further evidence of neuroplasticity.
The researchers reported subtle but distinct differences in structural and functional brain changes associated with music listening in musicians relative to non-musicians, though further studies in larger samples are needed to verify these findings. Repeated exposure to music with autobiographical salience improved cognition in all participants, regardless of musicianship.