Music Therapy and Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change over time with training. It was once believed that at a certain age the brain stopped being able to change and develop. We now know that the brain can continue to develop and change and make new pathways and connections when certain areas are damaged.

Music therapy can assist the brain in re-organizing and creating new neural pathways. In the linked article below, Dr. Elizabeth Stegemoller outlines the ways in which music therapy can promote neuroplasticity in the brain. Music therapists work with individuals with a variety of neurologic and physical challenges, using the elements of music to make changes in the brain. Music is used to build non-musical goals such as movement, speech, communication, receptive language, and cognitive skills.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout a person’s life span as a consequence of sensory input, motor action, reward, or awareness. American psychologist and physician William James first noted in the late 1800s that people’s behaviors were not static over time, and not long after, Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal suggested that behavioral changes had an anatomical basis in the brain. It is now well accepted that neuroplasticity encompasses changes on multiple levels, from individual synapses to entire cortical networks.

Enjoyable music activates the reward network of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA). By pairing such rewarding music with desired, nonmusic behaviors, music therapists may be tapping into the brain’s reward pathway.

The goal of music therapy is to elicit behavioral changes in a patient, and these changes are likely underpinned by changes in the brain. Indeed, I argue that three simple principles of neuroplasticity may explain how music therapy works.

The first has to do with the brain’s reward circuitry. Research has consistently shown that dopamine is a primary neurotransmitter involved in neuroplasticity, and dopaminergic neurons in the reward network of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA), have been implicated in cortical remodeling, reward-related learning, and hippocampal long-term potentiation (the strengthening of synapses due to a long-lasting increase in signal transmission between two neurons). And in the past few years, researchers have demonstrated that, like food and drugs, enjoyable music activates these reward networks. Thus, by pairing music with non-music-related behaviors, music therapists may be tapping into the brain’s reward pathway.

A second principle in neuroplasticity is the Hebbian theory, introduced in the middle of the 20th century by Donald Hebb and summarized by neuroscientist Siegrid Löwel of the University of Göttingen as “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, for two neurons to make a new connection or strengthen an existing one, they must fire action potentials synchronously. Research has shown that sensory stimuli can cause neural populations to fire synchronously. Rhythm, for example, is an inherent feature of music that, in addition to linking diverse behaviors to an external beat (a phenomenon known as entrainment), may also induce synchrony in the neural networks underlying the behaviors.

Thus, by pairing music with activities such as movement, vocalization, breathing, and heart rate, music therapists may be eliciting simultaneous firing of neurons in brain areas involved in the control of those behaviors, strengthening neuronal connectivity and leading to faster and more-permanent changes in their patients.

Conversely, researchers have shown that noise—disordered sound that is meaningless and tends to be unpleasant—can have negative impacts on neuroplasticity. Research in animal models has shown that exposure to noise can induce stress and impair both cognition and memory by suppressing long-term potentiation in the hippocampus.

Moreover, in rodent models, researchers have shown that embryos exposed to noise experience changes in the auditory cortex, hippocampus, and limbic system, and these changes may lead to decreased memory function and anxiety. Exposure to music, on the other hand, can promote neuroplasticity. Long-term prenatal exposure to music improves spatial learning due to changes in hippocampal function in rats. In human subject research, extensive music training and experience also leads to brain changes in areas involved in auditory and motor processing.

SOURCE: Miller, M. (2017) MT-BC / Stegemöller, E. (2017)


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