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Stories

South Health, Part 2

Your brain on music

The brain is a complex processing hub. It’s the control center of your nervous system, the network of nerve cells that carry messages to and from your body and the brain. A healthy brain tries to make sense of the world around you and the constant information it receives, including sound and music.

May 2018 NIH Sound Health Part 3 photoMusic, played or listened to, can have positive effects on a number of health conditions.“Sound is an important and profound force in our lives,” explains Northwestern University neuroscientist Dr. Nina Kraus. “The more we exercise our sound processing in the brain, the better the brain becomes at making sense of sound and the world around us. Music does this more than any other sound.”

Music and other sounds enter the ear as sound waves. These create vibrations on our eardrum that are transformed into electrical signals. The electrical signals travel up the auditory nerve to the brain’s auditory cortex. This brain area interprets the sound into something we recognize and understand.

But music affects more than the brain areas that process sound. Using techniques that take pictures of the brain, like fMRI, scientists have found that music affects other brain areas. When music stimulates the brain, it shows up on brain images as flickers of bright light. Studies have shown that music “lights up” brain areas involved in emotion, memory, and even physical movement.

“Music can help facilitate movement,” explains neuroscientist Dr. Robert Finkelstein, who co-leads the music and health initiative of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH-funded scientists are investigating whether music can help patients with movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease. Patients with this condition slowly lose their ability to walk and move over time.

“Studies show that when a certain beat is embedded in music, it can help people with Parkinson’s disease walk,” Finkelstein says. Another study is looking at how dance compares to other types of exercise in people with Parkinson’s disease.

There’s also evidence that music may be helpful for people with other health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, traumatic brain injury, stroke, aphasia, autism, and hearing loss.

Being musical may also protect you from hearing loss as you age. We naturally lose our hearing ability over time. In particular, it becomes harder to hear conversations in a loud environment. But researchers have found that musicians are better at picking out a person’s voice in a noisy background.

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health January 2018 News in Health, available online at newsinhealth.nih.gov.