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How music improves brain function

While previous studies have found that listening to music (especially classical music) has a positive impact on a person’s cognitive ability and brain function, the molecular mechanisms responsible for these benefits had remained unclear – until now.

Researchers from the Haartman Institute Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Helsinki in Finland, the University of the Arts’ Sibelius Academy (a music institution) and the Aalto University Department of Information and Computer Science investigated the effect of a musical performance on the gene expression profiles of professional musicians.

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“Several neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that the brains of professional musicians and non-musicians differ structurally and functionally and that musical training enhances cognition,” the authors wrote in a recent edition of the journal Scientific Reports. “However, the molecules and molecular mechanisms involved in music performance remain largely unexplored.”

They investigated the effect that music has on the genome-wide peripheral blood transcriptome of professional musicians. The research team analyzed the gene expression profiles of members of a professional orchestra (Tapiola Sinfonietta) and the Sibelius-Academy after a two-hour long concert performance, and then again following a “music-free” control session.

Playing music enhances activity in the brain

The researchers discovered that playing music enhanced the activity of genes involved in motor function, dopaminergic neurotransmission, neuronal plasticity, and neurocognitive functions including learning and memory. In particular, some of the genes involved in song perception and production in songbirds (including SNCA, FOS, and DUSP1) were identified, suggesting there is a potential link to the biological processes related to sound perception and performance.

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“Additionally, modulation of genes related to calcium ion homeostasis, iron ion homeostasis, glutathione metabolism, and several neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases implied that music performance may affect the biological pathways that are otherwise essential for the proper maintenance of neuronal function and survival,” the study authors wrote.

“The findings provide a valuable background for molecular studies of music perception and evolution, and music therapy,” said lead investigator Dr. Irma Järvelä from the University of Helsinki. She and her colleagues said that their work provides the first evidence for the candidate genes and molecular mechanisms believed to be associated with performing music.

Music is more important than you think

A similar study conducted by researchers from Boston’s Children Hospital last summer revealed that musical training can help determine a person’s academic success while also having a lasting benefit to their executive brain functions throughout the rest of their lives.

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In that study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to establish a possible biological link between formal musical training and a boost in brainpower. Their work, which was published online in the journal PLOS One, demonstrated how the fMRI of brain areas known to be linked to executive function were more active in musicians than in non-musicians.

“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” said senior investigator Dr. Nadine Gaab of the hospital’s Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience. “While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.”

By Chuck Bednar, www.redorbit.com, www.msidallas.com