These past few weeks in art and biotechnology class we have talked extensively about the biochemical and physical connectivity that can be reflected through art. Mycelial networks connect us to the natural universe on a fundamental level, carbon structures in graphene connect us to the organic affinities we share with pencil drawing as a reflection of our present experience, and Chinese zodiacs connect us with the Hox gene and distinct genetic developmental trajectories.
For my final paper I want to discuss how music as a form of artistic expression is interconnected to complex neural networks that are intimately intertwined with our health and experience. Specifically, I will explore how music can reignite the neural networks that are inhibited by neurodegenerative diseases associated with age.
For the past 2 years I have been working with Music Mends Minds, first as a volunteer and for the past year as a part time paid employee.
Music Mends Minds is a nonprofit that creates musical support groups for individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and other neurological disorders. My boss, Carol Rosenstein founded the non profit with her husband, Irwin, following his Alzheimers and Parkinson's diagnoses, as she saw how music helped him remain present and connected to his loved ones, even as his language skills started to fall away. I have been privy to so many beautiful moments where music is visibly serving a medicinal purpose for seniors who feel their lives slipping away to dementia and related cognitive decline.
The field of music cognition research has been growing in popularity over the last several decades, and I have had the pleasure of working closely with leading researchers such as Dr. Mark Tramo, Dr. Mary Mittelman, and Dr. Michael Thaut. Dr. Tramo, my mentor in the Brain Research Institute and Institute of Music and Brain Science, shares:
"My colleagues and I have done two clinical trials that incorporated music as the therapeutic intervention: 1) in patients with Parkinson Disease, we found that music with a strong beat facilitated visual reaction time and gait compared to ambient music or no music; and 2) in premature infants undergoing medically-necessary procedures, we found that lullabies quickly brought down spikes in infants' heart rates that were caused by the pain and stress of the procedures - faster than the slow decrease observed without lullabies."
These findings show how music can inhibit physiological pain response by interfering with the neural pathways associated with the nervous system, even before the brain undergoes the majority of its development. They also show that on an applied level, physical capabilities that are lost to diseases such as Parkinson's can be harnessed through the rhythmic and musical training, even with no cure in sight. Music can be an accessible and non pharmaceutical intervention with real time benefits on cognitive and physical functioning as well as quality of life. Research shows that in Parkinson’s patients, music enhances frontotemporal inter-hemispheric connection, benefiting motor, sensory, and cognitive functions (Maggioni et al., 2021). Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS), which is the synchronization of the body and music, can help Parkinson’s patients regain control over their movement (Braunlich, et al., 2019). As we listen to music, sounds are represented as an “enriched environment” in our brains that raises our general level of conscious functioning. Because of this, music has the potential to enhance connectivity between separate brain regions, which may act as an intervening force against neurodegeneration to develop, maintain, or even restore connectivity in brain tissue (Reybrouck et al., 2018). The most simple forms of music therapy, such as singing, playing an instrument, or rhythmic cues, have been correlated with greater global cognitive function in patients with dementia (Bian et al., 2021).
We can see through the current research that vastly different diagnoses are connected by the merit of music to increase neural plasticity at a later age and combat neurological interferences. The activation of distinct brain regions in the process of music listening, creation, and particularly improvisation, allows the brain to recognize familiar cognitive patterns that may be dormant due to disconnect in other brain regions.
We all can see how music would be an essential pathway to joy and social support, especially when on a larger scale, seniors with neurodegenerative decline are often marginalized and isolated from the rest of society. However, the way that music uniquely triggers a cascade of neurotransmitter response in the absence of typical functioning and decrease in brain mass provides a basis to explore how music may not only be a source of joy, but a source of healing that taps more directly and authentically into our human and animal nature, as well as our personal experience than pharmaceuticals could ever replicate.
Bian, Xiaoyi, et al. "Does music therapy affect the global cognitive function of patients with dementia? A meta-analysis." NeuroRehabilitation Preprint (2021): 1-10.
Maggioni, Eleonora, et al. "Effective Connectivity During Rest and Music Listening: An EEG Study on Parkinson’s Disease." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 13 (2021): 208.