Music may protect against effects of Alzheimer’s


ATLANTA – Children who learn to play a musical instrument and keep playing for many years will enjoy a better brain when they age. Not only will they retain cognitive skills that others may loose, they may enjoy special protections against some effects of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study conducted by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD., a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory University‘s Department of Neurology.

“Natural aging of the brain and the effects of the more accelerated decline found in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease may be delayed or diminished, ” said Hanna-Pladdy.

Her study used a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests on individuals age 63 to 80. Those with more than ten years of experience playing a musical instrument performed best in tests. Those with less than ten years experience score lower. Those with no experience tested lowest. Subjects were tested on spatial memory, naming objects, and cognitive flexibility, the brain’s ability to adapt to new information. These abilities typically decline as the brain ages or affected by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease

Previously, research has been done on the cognitive benefits that come with musical activity by children, but this is the first study to examine whether those benefits can extend across a lifetime.

Roger Lutterman of Sandy Springs scored high in tests conducted by Hanna-Pladdy’s team at Emory. “It’s not surprising,” said Hanna-Pladdy. “He’s been playing the piano for 60 years.”

When told of the connection between his musical history and his high scores, Lutterman, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, smiled and said, “it kind of feels like having an extra insurance policy in your back pocket.”

Hanna-Pladdy said, “Music literally changes and strengthens your brain because it is such a complex activity, demanding a range of auditory processing, motor skills, and memory. Playing an instrument helps create new alternative pathways for your brain to communicate and that plasticity may act as a buffer against cognitive decline as we get older.”

In her continuing research at Emory, Hanna-Pladdy is using functional MRI brain imaging done during cognitive testing to show the intensity and location of brain activity, demonstrating the differences between those with significant musical training and those with little or no such training.

“Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy said. “There are crucial periods (during childhood) in when brain plasticity can enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age, and thus may have a larger impact on brain development that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”

The benefits to the brain from learning a musical instrument in childhood is a happy coincidence for the Atlanta Symphony orchestra. The ASO has a strong education outreach to many area schools. Members of the orchestra tutor aspiring musicians and help school teachers and administrators organize music programs in schools.

“I’m absolutely blown away by the news of the health impacts of studying musical instruments,” said ASO President Stanley Romanstein. “I think it makes all of us look at classical music and it’s benefits to us as human beings in a completely different way.”

Emory’s Brenda Hanna-Pladdy considers her research far more than an academic exercise. She’s grateful her parents insisted she learn the flute as a child. And now, she has enrolled her own 5-yr-old daughter is in a daily after school music program, where she is learning to read music and play the violin.

Until now, parents often enrolled their children in music classes for the cultural experience or to instill discipline. Now, this research adds new motivation. Linda Moore‘s 8-yrear-old daughter Jalelah has been taking violin lessons at the Georgia Academy of Music in Atlanta for 4 years. “It’s fabulous,” she said of news about a health benefit to the brain. “Maybe I should start taking it.”

Tens of thousands of Atlanta’s area families take pride in the ability of their children to play a music instrument. Many high schools offer advanced orchestra and band opportunities, which motivate students to think of music as a life-long activity. But, recent budget cutbacks in many school districts have curtailed music programs at the grade school level, the age when the brains of children would most benefit from the learning experience. While some parents are able to pay for private lessons, in today’s economy many others cannot afford them.

Hanna-Pladdy began her research on music and the brain while she was an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center and a research faculty member of the Landon Center on Aging University of Kansas Medical Center. Her findings were published in the journal Neuropsychology.


Posted on October 31, 2011, in Alzheimer's Disease & Dementia, Music & Art and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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