Friday, December 9

Why are melodies the only thing people with dementia don’t forget?


A “expectation machine””: that -among other things- is the human brain, according to science. Thanks to its ability to anticipate what is going to happen, the brain constantly optimizes the chances of survival. An ability that is evident in his behavior before music.

Listening to music: what benefits does it have for health

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This is one of the main conclusions reached by scientists from Denmark and the United Kingdom, after a review of studies on the relationship between music and the brain published this year in the specialized journal Nature.

The work points out that “when we listen to music, we actively generate predictions about what is likely to happen next”. This is something new, since traditionally “the processing of music in the brain has been studied as an auditory phenomenon using passive listening paradigms”.

Looking at it this way “has led to a more complete understanding music processing, that is, the perception of melody, harmony and rhythm”. That processing “involves brain structures involved in action, emotion and learning.”

The “sweet anticipation” generated by music

Last year, the same researchers had spoken at a Article of the “sweet anticipation” that music generates both in the brain and in the body. For this reason, they affirm that “the perception, action, emotion and learning of music are based on the fundamental predictive ability of the human brain”.

The expectations generated by music, the scientists point out, are intimately linked to the dopamine releasethe neurotransmitter known as “the hormone of pleasure”, which activates the reward system in the brain and reinforces behaviors.

By the way, one research 2011, carried out by scientists from Canada, had verified that the dopamine that the body releases when faced with musical stimuli is “anatomically different” depending on whether it is the music anticipation or of the maximum emotion at the moment of listening to it.

Due to all this, the authors of this work affirmed that the pleasure that music generates at a chemical level “helps to explain why it has a value so high in all human societies”, even though it is an abstract stimulus that is not essential for the survival of the species.

Intrigue, restlessness and other sensations

In addition, those same brain predictions lead to feelings such as intrigue, curiosity, restlessness, and even chills at certain sounds. An example – cited by the authors of the research published this year – is the famous beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the “da, da, da daaah” that anticipates what is to come.

And dance is also part of that paradigm of anticipation cited by the researchers. The “pleasant feeling of want to move to the rhythm of the sounds” (for which the English language has a specific word: ‘groove’) is, says the 2021 study, “an excellent example of predictive coding of music”.

The latter is related to the call motor theory of perceptionwhich explains that “people perceive and make sense of what they hear by mentally simulating the movement of the body that they believe is involved in creating the sound in question.”

Such a theory explains why, when faced with similar sounds, people from different cultures perform actions so similar. Coincidences that also appear in dance and even in the spontaneous body movements with which music tends to be accompanied.

Even more: scientists from Barcelona confirmed that even at 16 weeks gestation fetuses react with gestures to the music they hear from the womb. The conclusion of workedpublished in 2015, is that the neural pathways that participate in the auditory-motor system are already developed at that time.

A whole brain job

These conclusions corroborate findings of recent years, which have disproved the belief that musical activity took place only in the right hemisphere of the brain: in fact, this process involves whole brain.

When one listen to a songthe letter is parsed by the language processing system of the brain. The temporal aspects, such as rhythm and beat, and the tonal aspects, that is, pitch, timbre, and structures, are registered by other subsystems; while, at the same time, the limbic system modulates the emotions that music produces.

In that “division of labour” executed by the brain would be some of the keys to why we are able to remember certain songs, even though decades have passed since the last time we heard them: the lyrics are “stored” in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, a brain area that favors memories.

And it also explains in this way the fact that people with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases continue to remember certain songs even when they hardly remember anything else.

Other study 2015 -by scientists from the Max Plack Institute, based in Germany- pointed out that “in Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, musical memory is surprisingly solid”, because it works “partially independently of other memory systems”.

In that same year, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified a neuronal population in the auditory cortex that responds specifically to musical soundsand not to speech or any other sound to which we are exposed.

Studies show that those brain regions specifically related to musical memory tend to coincide, in people with Alzheimer’s, with the areas least affected by the disease. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute, these findings “may explain the surprising musical memory preservation” in those patients.

For all this, experts consider music a great therapeutic tool for both the treatment and palliative care of Alzheimer’s patients. Although, of course, his health benefits -both physical and mental and emotional- we can take advantage of them all.

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