What you missed at BRAINet: The Many Brains in Music

The Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is the volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. BRAINet Lecture Luncheons are held each month, where members can hear presentations from OHSU faculty members.

On December 15, we were lucky enough to be joined by Larry Sherman, Ph.D., who spoke about the connections between music and the brain. Dr. Sherman is both an accomplished musician and Senior Scientist for the Division of Neuroscience at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center.

What did we learn?

The brain is a “use it or lose it” organ. Music is just one way to keep pushing it as we grow older. As we age, formation of the new neurons in our brains slow down. Synapses become weakened or destroyed and myelin–the material that coats, protects, and insulates nerves–becomes damaged. All of these changes contribute to age-related sensory, motor and cognitive decline. These changes are also accelerated in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Could music influence each of these processes?

Dr. Sherman thinks so. Music crosses the cultural divide and commonalities between vocalizations are found across the world. Mothers instinctually sing to their children. Children use the same sing-song vocalization when they taunt “nyah nyah nyah nyah.” The brain’s processing of music happens quickly, nearly immediately.

Dr. Sherman played a series of notes and asked the audience each time to sing the following note. Each time, the audience was able to discern what came next, even in an unfamiliar scale. It was surprisingly easy to adjust each time the music shifted.

There is great evidence that shows that playing a musical instrument increases neurogenesis, or the generation of new neurons. Practicing a piano for just eleven minutes a day shows an increase in white matter in the brain, where myelin is located. Those over the age of 70 who focus on learning and development also show stronger myelination. There are also indications that just thinking about how a certain piece of music is played can have an impact on myelination.

Find out more about BRAINet and how you can get involved. 

Want to know more? Watch video of Larry Sherman presenting at OMSI or listen to a podcast about the brain.