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Ask anyone in a choir why they like it, and they’ll tell you about the euphoric effects singing has on their mental health. A team of neuroscientists and clinical psychologists based at the University of Helsinki (Finland) believe these benefits could extend to improving brain function and treating aphasia.

Professor Teppo Särkämö studies how aging affects the way singing is processed by the brain, which could have important therapeutic applications. “We know a lot about speech processing, but not about singing. We are exploring how different functions related to singing could be preserved in many neurological diseases,” he explained.

For people with aphasia, a condition that severely impairs communication and is often caused by a stroke, communication can be nearly impossible as they have difficulty speaking the right words. Yet, thanks to a technique known as “melodic intonation therapy” – in which people are asked to sing an everyday phrase instead of speaking it – incredibly enough, they often find a voice.

Coordinator of the PREMUS project, Professor Särkämö and his team are using similar methods, extending the approach through specially run “senior choirs” that involve patients with aphasia and their families. Scientists are studying how singing could play an important role in the rehabilitation of cases of aphasia and could also prevent cognitive decline.

Hit the right notes

The PREMUS study is coordinated with a local aphasia organization in Helsinki and involves around 25 people per choir, both aphasia patients and their family carers. The trial results show encouraging results.

“Ultimately, the goal through 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 choirs, we are beginning to see how this approach translates into people’s daily lives as an important communication tool,” Särkämö said.

Along with an aphasia choir, the team also performed in-depth fMRI brain scans of young, middle-aged and older adults who participate in choirs to understand why singing is so important at different stages of life. life. Their results indicate that as we age, the brain networks involved in singing undergo less change than those that process speech, suggesting that singing is more prevalent in the brain and more resistant to aging.

Their studies also suggest that being actively engaged in singing, as opposed to listening to choral music for example, is crucial. “When you sing, you engage with the frontal and parietal systems of the brain where you regulate your own behavior, and you use your motor and cognitive resources more in terms of vocal control and executive functions,” Särkämö said.

Early results from a longitudinal study, which compared neurocognitive functioning between senior choir members and healthy older adults (non-singers) showed the positive effects of singing on cognitive and auditory functioning and importance of the social interaction it brings, which can help delay the onset of dementia.

The choir members performed better on neuropsychological tests, reported fewer cognitive difficulties and had better social integration. Electroencephalogram measurements from the same groups suggest that choir singers had more advanced higher-level auditory processing abilities, particularly to combine pitch and location information in frontotemporal brain regions, which Särkämö attributes to complexity. of the sound environment of choral singing.

The next step will be to replicate and expand this work with senior choirs for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and develop a large-scale clinical trial to test the effect. The challenge, however, is likely to be different with Alzheimer’s disease: while patients may remember songs from their past, Särkämö is unsure how well they can learn and retain new lyrics.

He is both optimistic and realistic about this work. “It’s about trying to stimulate the remaining networks in the brain. We think singing might help regain some of those functions, but of course with Alzheimer’s it’s a brutal and progressive disorder, so it’s all about buying more time and trying to slow down the pattern of decline that is already happening.

Same song sheet

Christian A. Drevon, professor of medicine at the University of Oslo (Norway), is another determined to meet the challenges of an aging population. Drevon is a biomarker specialist and is now using his expertise to understand the various factors affecting neurocognitive function in the EU-funded study Lifebrain project.

“Most studies of Alzheimer’s disease 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 said. -he explains. “However, it’s often not causal; you cannot say whether this is the reason for the disease or whether it is just a consequence of it.

To truly understand what’s going on with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, data is needed for individuals spanning periods of both when they’re healthy and when they’re not, to tease out what’s not didn’t work. Deciphering this question is the main objective of Lifebrain, coordinated by psychology professors Kristine Walhovd and Anders Fjell.

By pooling pre-existing brain MRI data from people across Europe, the Lifebrain project analyzed the importance of a range of different factors on cognition as we age and how this may vary from individual to individual. ‘other.

To analyze more than 40,000 brain scans of more than 5,000 people aged 1880 in seven countries, the first challenge was to harmonize the data. Do MRI exams in Sweden and Spain produce the same results? To make sure, Lifebrain sent eight participants across Europe to be scanned and to adjust the equipment accordingly.

All psychological tests (including cognitive tests) and other collected data (body weight, demographics, genetics and lifestyle data including sleep and diet) have been harmonized.

Then the team linked the MRI data to additional databases that revealed new information about how you live and what access do you have to green spaces may help reduce the risk of dementia. Conversely, it also revealed how education and sleep may be less important for future dementia risk than previously assumed.

“Many studies have claimed that education is really important in reducing the risk of dementia. But if you follow people longitudinally through life, there’s actually no association,” Drevon said. “That doesn’t mean education isn’t important; this means that it is probably not true that education will prevent you from developing dementia. We have to look for other important factors.

Given the cost of MRIs, Drevon suggests that tiny blood samples (dried blood spots) could be taken by finger prick without professional support to provide individual information in the future. Analyzed in a state-of-the-art laboratory like Vitas AG – Lifebrain Partner – this could be a game-changer by providing personalized online advice on individual risks.

“If you really want to improve your lifestyle, you probably have to personalize it. You have to measure multiple factors at the individual level throughout life,” he said. “Our best chance of fighting cognitive decline and dementia will come from early preventive measures using this lifespan data approach.”

Craft songs

Over time, Professor Drevon hopes this personalized information could help delay or potentially eradicate some aspects of dementia. In the meantime, what about singing to ward off cognitive decline as proposed by Särkämö through the PREMUS project? Does he agree that singing could be an important preventative step?

“Well, the brain is like a muscle. If you train it, you make it fit, and if you use your brain to sing, it’s complicated, there’s a lot of process, it’s about remembering. Of course, there are other ways to train the brain, but singing is a great example of how you can help improve brain function.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally publishedin Skylinethe European magazine for research and innovation.

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