Can learning music deter dementia?

November 27, 2018, Massey University
PhD psychology researcher Ryan Sutcliffe with the tools for his study - a guitar and non-invasive brain imaging technology. Credit: Massey University

Ryan Sutcliffe loves to play the guitar, and writes and performs his own songs. Now, the doctoral psychology researcher has a dream project combining his musical and academic interests in a study to test whether music lessons can help maintain brain health in ageing.

Mr Sutcliffe is seeking 60 people aged over 60 years in the Manawatū region to take part in a study to determine if learning a musical instrument in later life can affect cognition, and act as a way of slowing the inevitable decline in brain function and, perhaps, even defer the onset of dementia.

He will be offering free guitar lessons and a free guitar to 30 people randomly assigned to one group. The other 30 in the will take part in a club involving listening to and discussing a wide variety of music, sharing favourite music and doing music quizzes.

"What I'm interested in is how we can use music in successful brain ageing," says Mr Sutcliffe, who is based in the School of Psychology at Massey University. "The rationale for this study is that by learning a musical instrument, we can reduce chances of having further brain degeneration than already might occur in healthy ageing."

How does strumming lead to successful brain ageing? "When you're learning an instrument, it's the motor aspects [using your hands], it's the listening aspect, it's the visual aspect, and also the concentration. When you tie all of these things together, you're actually really exercising your brain, which is important for the maintenance of healthy brain function."

Pleasure also has a cognitive impact through feeling rewarded by making progress in learning how to make music. The idea is that music tuition could be an early stage intervention to bolster the brain's inherent neuroplasticity.

Novel study

As far as he's aware, this is the first study anywhere to teach music to an older group of participants and to record brain activity.

Both groups will undergo a non-invasive neurological session before and after the or club activities. During those tasks he will record brain activity, using an imaging method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).

"In this session, people will be asked to label the emotion in music clips and faces, and complete some questions tapping into verbal and non-verbal reasoning while wearing a head cap which uses light to measure blood flow throughout the surface," he says. The session will last roughly one and a half hours.

Ryan Sutcliffe testing the brain imaging technology to be used in his research with his co-supervisor Dr Ute Kreplin. Credit: Massey University

Prospective participants must be free of any history of head injury, stroke or other neurological impacts (including neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease). Depending on which group participants are assigned to, they will receive either a new guitar to keep, or a gift card of equivalent value. Participants must not currently play an instrument, currently consider themselves a musician, or have had more than three years of earlier music training (including self-teaching, formal lessons, or otherwise).

Those who agree to take part in this project will first be asked to complete an online questionnaire to collect demographic information. Following this, participants will be asked to attend one of two weekly groups – either the music appreciation and discussion club or the guitar learning programme. "These lessons will provide participants with a basic introduction to contemporary guitar playing, with an emphasis on song-learning and performance, as opposed to music theory," he says.

Music tuition – a gamechanger in ageing health care?

"The most valuable outcome of the proposed research would be that late-life music learning prevents declines in and consequently, cognitive, mental, and social abilities. Learning a could therefore be a simple, inexpensive, and non-invasive method for reducing older adults' likelihood of developing age-based neurodegenerative diseases," Mr Sutcliffe says.

"Group music lessons could be implemented in rest homes and community groups, with the goal of easing the societal pressure associated with increasing aged populations."

Mr Sutcliffe knows the power of music since he picked up guitar at age nine. He took lessons and has played and written songs ever since, including in a high school jazz group and more recently, a gig in Palmerston North.

"Because music is a big part of my life and I listen to music all the time, I've always been interested in the psychological side of it. It's really cool that I've been able to incorporate playing the guitar into a Ph.D. in psychology."

He is currently seeking volunteers for this project and encourages anyone interested to contact him for more information or to register for the study: E: rsutcliffe14@gmail.com or M: 027 267 1235

Mr Sutcliffe hopes to start the groups, which will run for four months, in February and March 2019.

Explore further: Learning with music can change brain structure, study shows

Related Stories

Learning with music can change brain structure, study shows

July 6, 2017
Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study.

Beatboxers' and guitarists' brains react differently to hearing music

September 5, 2018
The brains of professional beatboxers and guitarists respond to music differently when compared to each other and non-musicians, finds a new UCL-led study.

Ageing in harmony—why the third act of life should be musical

June 2, 2016
It's never too late to pick up a musical instrument. In fact there are many reasons why it's a great idea, particularly in old age.

Uncovering why playing a musical instrument can protect brain health

June 1, 2017
A recent study conducted at Baycrest Health Sciences has uncovered a crucial piece into why playing a musical instrument can help older adults retain their listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines. This ...

Mu­sic play­school en­hances chil­dren's lin­guistic skills

June 12, 2018
According to the research conducted at the University of Helsinki, weekly music playschool significantly improved the development of children's vocabulary skills. Several studies have suggested that intensive musical training ...

Recommended for you

Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data

December 14, 2018
Already affecting more than five million Americans older than 65, Alzheimer's disease is on the rise and expected to impact more than 13 million people by 2050. Over the last three decades, researchers have relied on neuroimaging—brain ...

Self-perception and reality seem to line-up when it comes to judging our own personality

December 14, 2018
When it comes to self-assessment, new U of T research suggests that maybe we do have a pretty good handle on our own personalities after all.

Levels of gene-expression-regulating enzyme altered in brains of people with schizophrenia

December 14, 2018
A study using a PET scan tracer developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has identified, for the first time, epigenetic differences between the brains of individuals ...

Does diabetes damage brain health?

December 14, 2018
(HealthDay)—Diabetes has been tied to a number of complications such as kidney disease, but new research has found that older people with type 2 diabetes can also have more difficulties with thinking and memory.

Scientists identify method to study resilience to pain

December 14, 2018
Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System have successfully demonstrated that it is possible to pinpoint genes that contribute to inter-individual differences in pain.

Parents' brain activity 'echoes' their infant's brain activity when they play together

December 13, 2018
When infants are playing with objects, their early attempts to pay attention to things are accompanied by bursts of high-frequency activity in their brain. But what happens when parents play together with them? New research, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Anonym544833
not rated yet Nov 28, 2018
good

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.