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Science Beginning to Show Music Can Actually Change Your Brain

An interview with soprano Renee Fleming and geneticist Dr. Francis Collins

A segment in yesterday's PBS NewsHour discusses the convergence of music and science in advancing health and wellness, led by renowned soprano Renee Fleming and physician-geneticist Dr. Francis Collins. Fleming, having experienced somatic pain during her career, discovered the medical community's interest in studying music's effects on the mind-body connection. Together, they advocate for integrating arts into healthcare settings, citing benefits seen in hospitals and research projects nationwide.

Their initiative explores music's impact on various health conditions, including dementia, Parkinson's, and mental health disorders like postpartum depression. Research suggests that music can activate different parts of the brain and induce positive physiological responses, such as reduced pain and increased oxytocin levels. However, rigorous scientific evidence is still needed to fully integrate music therapy into medical practice in order for health insurance companies to be willing to integrate it into the treatments they cover.

They also discuss the effects of music on the brains of young children. Dr. Collins states that "if you look at the brain of somebody who had intense musical training before age 7, you can actually see that part of the [acoustic] cortex [where the brain processes incoming sound] is a little larger than in somebody who did not have that. So...then you can say...if you have a musical experience that affects you, you can see how that signal that starts out in the acoustic cortex spreads to many other parts of the brain."

They are confident that this research "has a wide range of implications for child development, Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia, Parkinson's, and other conditions and interventions." They are currently doing a study where people are offered voice lessons. One group is given private training, and the other group is taught as part of a choir. Dr. Collins states, "For 12 weeks, and to just see what happens as far as their health, the people that had individual singing, they did OK. The people in the choir, by all kinds of measures, were actually affected in a very positive way. Many of them had chronic pain [that was] noticeably reduced...Their attitude toward generosity went straight up, and their oxytocin levels went up too, as another sort of hormonal measure of good will, good sense of health."

Collaborations between the arts and science communities are gaining momentum, with initiatives like NIH Music and Health and the Kennedy Center's Sound Health partnership. Despite some initial pushback, there's growing recognition of the potential benefits. Fleming and Collins emphasize the importance of community engagement and interdisciplinary education to further advance this field.

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