Medizin & Gesundheit

Structural and functional brain plasticity: Does music have benefits on memory?

To this day, music is anchored in different cultural traditions and plays an important role in everyday life. In view of this omnipresence and ubiquity of music, the question emerges, whether music has got positive effects on humans. Many experiments have been conducted in order to investigate the effects of music on cognition. For example, researchers found differences between musicians and non-musicians in spatial task performance or verbal ability. In addition to these findings, the volume of information that musicians can remember seems sometimes amazing. They often play for hours and seem to recall all music pieces from memory. In fact, these are high memory performances, which are often achieved under high tension. This work therefore addresses the question, if and how specific and intensive musical training has got effects on memory and could consequently serve as a therapeutic intervention in the clinical sector.

Researchers suggest different memory subsystems in regard to temporal and content-related aspects: Ultra short-term-, working-, and long-term memory. The main interest of this thesis lies on working- and declarative long-term memory. Working memory can be seen as a short-term memory storage with limited capacity. It buffers information, connects incoming data with the long-term memory storage and introduces further information processing. On the neuronal level the prefrontal cortex plays and important role in working memory functions. Declarative memory consists of the long-lasting and durable memory storage. It implies conscious, intentional recollection of experience and information. At the neuronal level the hippocampus, a structure, which is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, seems to play an important role in declarative long-term memory.

Several studies, which will be outlined in the thesis more precisely, show evidence that musical training causes structural as well as functional brain changes in regions being also important in memory processes. In addition, behavioural differences between musicians and non-musicians observed in memory tasks were found. Several studies observed structural distinctions between groups in brain regions mediating working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)). These results support findings, which additionally found greater neural activity in the DLPFC of musicians compared to non-musicians when subjects were tapping in synchrony with auditory rhythms.

Brain modifications as well as functional differences between musicians and non-musicians were also observed in the hippocampus, which is important for declarative memory. Animal studies support the hypothesis that music exposure leads to neuronal changes in the hippocampus and revealed enhanced performance in declarative memory tasks. Also experiments with humans investigating the interaction between music and behaviour in declarative memory tasks showed memory improvements. On the other hand behavioural results in the working memory tasks have not been very congruent as they range from better performances for musicians compared to non-musicians, to similar cognitive achievements between the two groups.

All in all there is evidence that intensive musical training leads to functional and structural differences in brain regions mediating working and declarative memory processes. Although memory systems were not considered exhaustively, the large amount of data points out that a relation between music and memory actually exists.

These findings encourage the view that long-term intervention programs could initiate neuroplasticity. Due to the increasing prevalence of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer‘s disease (AD), which often affects working- and declarative memory processes, researchers intensify the search for treatment options. There is evidence that music exposure can serve as a mental training in AD. Researchers found better recognition performance in patients with AD, when the lyrics, which had to be remembered, were accompanied by music. Furthermore, also autobiographical memory seems to improve due to music exposure. It seems as if music exposure also leads to memory improvements in stroke patients: Patients suffering from stroke in frontal, medial and parietal brain regions show training-related improvements in verbal memory and focused attention. Thereby different aspects seem to be important for a concrete music intervention: People should be able to listen to their favourite music, a long-term intervention seems to be useful and it is rather necessary to listen to music actively than to play music actively by all means.

All in all there is great evidence, that music exposure leads to memory improvements both in healthy individuals as well as in patients with neurological disorders. There is also evidence that music therapy is able to improve memory in patients with neurological disorders, which is why music might have an impact in the therapy of patients with neurological disorders. Nevertheless, further research is necessary, which will be briefly addressed in the end of the thesis.

Sophia Röhling
Lehr- / Forschungsinstitut
Universität Basel

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