The Hearing Power of Music Could dabbling in music help reverse age-related decline in auditory function? All Ears on Audiology
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All Ears on Audiology  |   December 01, 2017
The Hearing Power of Music
Author Notes
  • Erika Skoe, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and an affiliate of the Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Connecticut. erika.skoe@uconn.edu
    Erika Skoe, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and an affiliate of the Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Connecticut. erika.skoe@uconn.edu×
Article Information
Hearing & Speech Perception / All Ears on Audiology
All Ears on Audiology   |   December 01, 2017
The Hearing Power of Music
The ASHA Leader, December 2017, Vol. 22, 20-21. doi:10.1044/leader.AEA.22122017.20
The ASHA Leader, December 2017, Vol. 22, 20-21. doi:10.1044/leader.AEA.22122017.20
Our biology is tightly regulated by a network of internal physiological clocks, some of which turn on and off critical developmental windows or control other long-range biological events associated with aging.
The conventional wisdom has been that these biological timekeepers, like time itself, move only forward—and that once biological events are set into motion, these events cannot be reversed, stopped or even slowed.
But what if we could turn back the hands of time, re-open critical windows of neural plasticity and slow down biological clocks to keep cognitive and sensory systems younger for longer? In the case of hearing decline, what if we could return to the ears of our youth?
Musical training just might be what our ears need to turn back that clock.
Regaining neural plasticity
Neurons, important cells that make up our central auditory system, are bathed in a cocktail of molecules that regulate their function. Within this sea of molecules are neurotrophic factors, a family of proteins that support neural growth and proliferation during development. Other molecules in this cellular bath act as molecular brakes that slow down neural plasticity to close sensitive windows.
Studies show that by pharmacologically removing certain molecules or introducing new ones, neurotrophins can be reactivated and molecular brakes on plasticity can be released, leading to the re-opening of windows of neuroplasticity.
For example, researchers have studied the mood stabilizer valproate as a possible “fountain-of-youth” drug with the capacity to turn off biological brakes and set neuroplasticity into motion.
In one study, researchers administered valproate to male adults while they underwent a week of pitch-based auditory training (see sources). When tested at the end of the training period, the participants taking valproate showed greater perceptual plasticity compared with an age-matched placebo group, which—like the experimental group—had little to no previous musical or other pitch-related auditory training.
Although the idea of being able to use a drug to boost the outcome of auditory training or rehabilitation is appealing, studies also find that mood-stabilizing drugs can have negative side effects on auditory function. When dosed at the wrong time, especially before birth, these drugs can lead to hypersensitivity to sound and disrupted tonotopic organization (see sources), as well as increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (see sources).

To bring sheet music to life, a musician must convert abstract, printed symbols into complex sequences of notes in real time. This requires rapidly engaging our brains and bodies with a musical instrument.

Cue the music
Musical training may offer an alternative, nonchemical approach to boosting brain fitness. Performing music is an intense workout for the brain. To bring sheet music to life, a musician must convert abstract, printed symbols into complex sequences of notes in real time.
This requires rapidly engaging our brains and bodies with a musical instrument, and sometimes with other performers, to produce the familiar patterns of sound we call rhythm, harmony and melody. When performed at a high level, the choreography of visual, auditory, motor, emotional and cognitive systems during a music performance appears almost effortless.
A recent study published in the journal Brain Structure and Function suggests that playing music on a regular basis—and exercising the brain through this type of intense cross-fitness—can induce a youthful neural state (see sources). This study measured “brain age” using a novel MRI technique that compared gray matter images of musician and non-musician brains with a large database of brains of varying ages.
Musicians were found to have younger-looking brains than non-musicians of the same chronological age. However, among the musicians, it was the amateur musicians—not the professionals—who had the youngest-looking brains. A surprising result of the study was that professional musicians with more years of musical training had older brain ages. These findings suggest that pursuing music as a hobby may have therapeutic benefits, but that a professional level of music experience may actually accelerate the aging process.
Of course, this acceleration could be due to the increased stresses associated with the often low-paying profession or overuse injuries from practicing an instrument day in and day out. (These findings take on a whole new set of interpretations when you consider that all participants in the sample were younger than 40, with an average age of 25.)
This recent MRI study of brain age in musicians examined the discrepancy between biological and chronological age. Although the analysis focused holistically on brain gray matter, it did not detail which features of gray matter were different between groups, nor did it address a host of related questions: Do musicians have younger-looking white matter tracts? What is the functional age of the musician brain? Do structural differences in brain age extend across different brain areas, such as the auditory system or visual system?
Moreover, although the groups of musicians and non-musicians were of comparable age and had similar educational backgrounds, variables that audiologists care about—like audiometric function or noise exposure history—weren’t considered, despite evidence that noise exposure can accelerate age-related hearing loss (see sources) and that hearing loss can affect the structural and functional integrity of the nervous system (see sources).

Making music is linked with faster temporal processing skills, leading to the hypothesis that music counteracts age-related slowing of the auditory system—and may offset the effects of aging.

Winding back the clock
So, what do we know about music-making and its influence on age-related functional changes to the auditory system? For instance, one hallmark feature of aging is slowed temporal processing. The effects of temporal slowing are evident in behavioral and electrophysiological measurements of the auditory system.
Making music, by contrast, is linked with faster temporal processing skills (see sources), leading to the hypothesis that music counteracts age-related slowing of the auditory system—and may offset the effects of aging. Evidence favoring this hypothesis has emerged from studies of musicians of varied ages, from the very youngest musicians who have just recently started making music to more seasoned, professional musicians with decades of experience (see sources). However, this auditory research, unlike the MRI study, suggests that career musicians do benefit from their years of playing music.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, age-related changes to speech-evoked auditory brainstem responses (ABR) were compared between musicians and non-musicians, using a dataset of more than 700 participants (250-plus musicians), spanning in age from 3 to 73. The outcomes of this cross-sectional study suggest that music-making does not, in fact, speed up or slow down the major milestones of ABR development. Instead, making music routinely may affect how age-dependent changes are expressed in the auditory system, potentially allowing the auditory system to take greater advantage of sensitive periods to promote resilient, more youthful-looking auditory processing later in life.
However, until we have the technology to directly observe the molecular processes associated with aging in humans, we can only speculate whether music-making is indeed manipulating the biological clocks that regulate aging processes. Time will tell.
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December 2017
Volume 22, Issue 12