Boosting brain function later in life through singing

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Summary: Singing in a social group, such as a choir, can help protect cognitive function and treat aphasia in older adults.

Source: horizon

Ask anyone in a choir why they enjoy it, and they will tell you about the euphoric effect singing has on their mental health. A team of neuroscientists and clinical psychologists from the University of Helsinki, Finland, believe these benefits could extend to improving brain function and treating aphasia.

Professor Teppo Särkämö is studying how aging affects the way song is processed by the brain, which could have important therapeutic applications.

“We know a lot about speech processing, but not much about singing. We are investigating how different singing-related functions might be preserved in many neurological disorders,” he explained.

For people with aphasia, a condition that severely impairs communication and is often caused by a stroke, communication can be almost impossible as they struggle to find the right words. But through a technique known as “melodic intonation therapy” — in which people are asked to sing an everyday phrase instead of speaking it — they find a voice incredibly often.

The coordinator of the PREMUS project, Prof. Särkämö, and his team use similar methods and extend the approach with specially directed ‘elderly choirs’ involving aphasic patients and their families. The scientists are investigating how singing could play an important rehabilitative role in cases of aphasia and also prevent cognitive decline.

Hit the right notes

The PREMUS study is coordinated with a local aphasia organization in Helsinki and includes about 25 people per choir, both aphasia patients and their relatives. The results of the study show encouraging results.

“Ultimately, the goal of our work with people with aphasia is to use singing as a tool to train language production and eventually enable them to communicate without singing. But through the choirs we are starting to see how this approach carries over into people’s daily lives as an important communication tool,” Särkämö said.

In addition to an aphasia choir, the team also conducted extensive fMRI brain scans of young, middle-aged and older adults who participate in choirs to understand why singing is so important at different stages of life.

Their results show that the brain networks involved in singing change less with age than those that process language, suggesting that singing is more widespread in the brain and more resilient to aging.

Her studies also suggest that it is crucial to actively engage in singing, as opposed to listening to choral music, for example.

“When you sing, you engage the frontal and parietal systems in the brain, where you regulate your own behavior, and you use more of your motor and cognitive resources related to vocal control and executive functioning,” Särkämö said.

Early results of a longitudinal study comparing the neurocognitive function of members of older choirs and healthy older adults (who do not sing) demonstrated the positive effects of singing on cognitive and auditory function and the importance of the social interaction it entails , which can be helpful in delaying the onset of dementia.

The choir members performed better on neuropsychological tests, reported fewer cognitive difficulties, and had higher social integration. Electroencephalogram measurements from the same groups suggest that the choristers had more advanced, higher-level auditory processing abilities, particularly for combining pitch and location information in frontotemporal brain regions, something Särkämö attributes to the complexity of the choral sound environment.

The next step will be to replicate and expand this work with older choirs for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and to develop a large clinical trial to test the effect. However, the challenge with Alzheimer’s is probably different: while patients may remember songs from their past, Särkämö is unsure of their ability to learn and retain new lyrics.

He is both optimistic and realistic about this work. “The aim here is to stimulate the remaining networks in the brain. We think singing might help regain some of those functions, but of course Alzheimer’s is a brutal, progressive disease, so it’s a matter of buying more time and trying to slow the pattern of decline that’s already happening.”

Same song sheet

Another with a strong focus on responding to the challenges of an aging population is Christian A. Drevon, Professor of Medicine at the University of Oslo (Norway).

Drevon is a biomarker specialist and is now using his expertise to understand the different factors affecting neurocognitive function in the EU-funded Lifebrain project.

“Most studies of Alzheimer’s are cross-sectional studies, where you take a group of people, look at a specific time, and associate certain things with those who have the disease and those who don’t,” he explained. “However, this is often not causal; you can’t tell if it’s the cause of the disease or if it’s just a consequence of it.”

To truly understand what happens with Alzheimer’s and dementia, data from people spanning both healthy and unhealthy times is needed to find out what went wrong. Clarifying this question is the main goal of Lifebrain, which is coordinated by psychologists Professors Kristine Walhovd and Anders Fjell.

By bringing together pre-existing MRI brain scan data from people across Europe, the Lifebrain project analyzed the importance of a number of different factors in cognition in old age and how this can vary from person to person.

See also

To analyze more than 40,000 brain scans from more than 5,000 people aged 18 to 80 in seven countries, the first challenge was to harmonize the data. Do MRI scans in Sweden and Spain give the same results? To ensure this, Lifebrain sent eight participants across Europe to scan them and adjust their equipment accordingly.

All psychological tests (including cognitive tests) and other data collected (body weight, demographic, genetic and lifestyle data, including sleep and diet) were harmonized.

Next, the team linked MRI data to additional databases, providing new insights into how you live and your access to green spaces, which could help reduce your risk of dementia. Conversely, it also helped uncover how education and sleep may be less important in future risk of dementia than previously thought.

“Many studies have claimed that education is really important in reducing the risk of dementia. But when you follow people through life, there’s really no association,” Drevon said.

This shows a group of people singing
Singing is emerging as a solution to improve brain function and prevent age-related cognitive disorders. Credit: Horizon

“That doesn’t mean education isn’t important; it means it’s probably not true that education will protect you from developing dementia. We have to look for other important factors.”

Given the cost of MRIs, Drevon suggests finger-pricking tiny blood samples (dried blood stains) without professional assistance for future personalized insights. Analyzed in an advanced laboratory such as Vitas Ltd – a partner of Lifebrain – this could play a crucial role in providing tailored online advice on individual risks.

“If you really want to improve your lifestyle, you probably need to personalize it. You need to measure multiple factors at an individual level throughout life,” he said. “Our best chance to combat cognitive decline and dementia comes from early preventive action using this lifespan data approach.”

develop songs

Prof Drevon hopes that, over time, these personalized insights can help delay or potentially eradicate certain aspects of dementia. Meanwhile, what about singing to stave off cognitive decline, as suggested by Särkämö in the PREMUS project? Does he agree that singing could be an important preventative step?

“Well, the brain is like a muscle. When you train it, you make it fit, and when you use your brain to sing, it’s complicated, there’s a lot of processes, it’s about remembering. Of course there are other ways to train the brain, but singing is a very good example of how you can help improve brain function.”

About this news from brain aging and singing research

Author: Andrew Dunne
Source: horizon
Contact: Andrew Dunne – Horizon
Picture: The picture is credited to Horizon

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