Summary: Singing in a social group such as a choir may help protect cognitive function and treat aphasia in older adults.
Ask anyone in the choir why they enjoy it, and they will tell you about the uplifting effects of singing on their mental health. A team of neuroscientists and clinical psychologists at the University of Helsinki (Finland) believe that these benefits could extend to improving brain function and treating aphasia.
Professor Teppo Särkämö studies how aging affects the way the brain processes singing, which could have important therapeutic applications.
“We know a lot about speech processing, but we don’t know much about singing. We are exploring how different functions related to singing may be preserved in many neurological diseases.”
For people with aphasia, a condition that results in severe communication impairment and usually caused by a stroke, communication can be nearly impossible as they struggle to pronounce the correct words. However, through a technique known as “melodic intonation therapy” – where people are asked to sing an everyday sentence rather than say it – incredibly often they find a sound.
coordinator Primus In the project, Professor Serkamo and his team use similar methods, by scaling up the approach through specially managed “senior choirs” of aphasia patients and their families. Scientists are exploring how singing can play an important role in rehabilitation for aphasia and may also prevent cognitive decline.
Hit the right notes
The PREMUS study is coordinated with the local aphasia organization in Helsinki and involves about 25 people per choir, both aphasia patients and their family caregivers. The results of the experiment show encouraging results.
“Ultimately, the goal of our work with people with aphasia is to use singing as a tool to train speech production and eventually enable them to communicate without singing. But through the choir we are beginning to see how this approach is being translated into people’s daily lives as an important communication tool,” Sarkamo said.
Besides the aphasia choir, the team also performed extensive fMRI brain scans for young, middle-aged, and elderly people who participate in choirs to understand why singing is important at different stages of life.
Their results indicate that as we age, the brain networks involved in singing undergo fewer changes than those that process speech, suggesting that singing is more diffuse in the brain and more fluid with ageing.
Their studies also indicate that actively engaging in singing, rather than listening to choral music for example, is critical.
“When you sing, you are involved in the frontal and parietal systems of the brain where they regulate your behavior, and you use more of your motor and cognitive resources in relation to vocal control and executive functions,” Särkämö said.
Early results from a longitudinal study, which compared neurocognitive performance between senior choir members and healthy older adults (who do not sing), demonstrated the positive effects of singing on cognitive and auditory performance and the importance of the social interaction it brings, which may help delay the onset of dementia.
Choir members performed better on neuropsychological tests, reported fewer cognitive difficulties, and had higher social integration. EEG measurements of the same groups indicate that choral singers have more advanced auditory processing abilities at a higher level, particularly for combining pitch and location information in the frontotemporal brain regions, something Särkämö attributes to the complexity of the vocal environment in choral singing.
The next step will be to replicate and expand this work with senior choirs of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and to develop a large-scale clinical trial to test the effect. However, the challenge is likely to be different with Alzheimer’s: while patients may remember songs from their past, Särkämö is unsure to what extent they can learn and retain new songs.
He is optimistic and realistic about this business. This is all about trying to stimulate the remaining networks in the brain. We think singing can help restore some of these functions, but of course with Alzheimer’s it’s a brutal and progressive disorder, so it’s a matter of buying more time and trying to slow down the pattern of decline that’s already happening.”
the song sheet itself
Another person focused heavily on responding to the challenges of an aging population is Christian A. Drevon, Professor of Medicine at the University of Oslo (Norway).
Drevon is a biomarker specialist and is now using his expertise to understand the different factors affecting neurocognitive function in the EU-funded Lifebrain project.
“Most studies of Alzheimer’s are cross-sectional where you take a group of people, look at a certain time and associate certain things with those who have the disease and those who don’t,” he explained. “However, this is often not causal; you cannot tell if this is the cause of the disease or if it is just a consequence of it.”
To really understand what’s going on with Alzheimer’s and dementia, data is needed for individuals who extend periods when they are healthy and when they are not, to undo what went wrong. Deselecting this question is the primary goal of Lifebrain, coordinated by psychologists Professor Kristine Walhovd and Anders Fjell.
By compiling pre-existing MRI brain scan data from people across Europe, the Lifebrain Project analyzed the importance of a range of different factors in cognition as we age and how this may differ between individuals.
To analyze more than 40,000 brain scans of more than 5,000 people between the ages of 18 and 80 in seven countries, the first challenge was to coordinate the data. Does MRI in Sweden and Spain give the same results? To make sure, Lifebrain sent eight participants across Europe to check them out and adjust the equipment accordingly.
All psychological tests (including cognitive tests) and other data collected (body weight, demographic, genetic, and lifestyle data, including sleep and diet data) were coordinated.
Next, the team linked the MRI data to additional databases that revealed new insights into how to live and what access to green spaces might help reduce dementia risk. Conversely, it also helped reveal how education and sleep may be less important for future dementia risk than previously assumed.
Lots of studies have claimed that education is really important for lowering the risk of dementia. “But if you follow people longitudinally through life, there’s really no correlation,” said Drevon.
“This does not mean that education is not important; it means that perhaps it is not true that education will prevent you from developing dementia. We have to look for other factors that are important.”
Given the cost of an MRI, Drevon suggests that small blood samples (dried blood spots) can be taken with a finger prick without specialist support to provide individual insights into the future. Analyzed in an advanced lab such as Vitas Ltd – a partner of Lifebrain – this can be a game-changer in providing personalized online advice on individual risks.
“If you really want to improve your lifestyle, you probably have to customize it. You have to measure several factors on an individual level across the life path,” he said. “Our best chance of combating cognitive decline and dementia will come from early preventive measures using an age data approach.”
In time, Professor Drevon hopes these personalized insights will help delay or eliminate certain aspects of dementia. In the meantime, how about singing to stave off cognitive decline as suggested by Särkämö through the PREMUS project? Does he agree that singing can be an important preventive step?
“Well, the brain is like a muscle. If you train it, make it fit, if you use your brain to sing, it’s complex, and there’s a lot of process, it’s about remembering. Of course, there are other ways to train the brain, but singing is a very good example of how it can help improve brain function.”
About this research on brain aging and singing news
author: Andrew Dunn
Contact: Andrew Dunn – Horizon
picture: Image attributed to Horizon