Can music slow onset of neurodegenerative disease?

A new collaboration between the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music will be launched on 25 March. Together, with support of a generous gift, they are designing a musical intervention to help those at risk of cognitive decline.

The incidence of dementia is predicted to double in twenty years. Researchers are yet to find a cure, but it is critical to develop early interventions that slow or stop the progression of neurodegeneration.

This project, in collaboration with the Memory and Cognition Clinic at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, could create the evidence base needed to support wider implementation of musical interventions for people with mild cognitive impairment, the stage before dementia develops.

Lead researcher from the Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Sharon Naismith said: “Prevention is better than a cure. We have no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We have no cure for all the other types of dementia.”

We need to focus on reducing cognitive decline, depression and underlying brain changes that are associated with dementia as early as we can. Music could be a powerful and enjoyable way to achieve this.

Professor Sharon Naismith, Brain and Mind Centre

Engaging with music, such as learning to play an instrument or singing in a choir, is an accessible experience that often appeals to those who find they have more time on their hands following retirement or other lifestyle changes. Performing music involves complex, simultaneous motor and cognitive functions, and recent analysis showed some positive effects on cognition following musical training in healthy older people with mild cognitive impairment.

There is very little research to-date on using music training as a component of cognitive interventions for older people. This project will work with older people living with mild cognitive impairment, to understand the effectiveness of music training to slow or stop the progression of dementia.

About the research project

The proposed approach is to:

· Design a musical intervention through a collaboration between the Brain and Mind Centre and Sydney Conservatorium of Music, with key input from people with lived experience of mild cognitive impairment.

· Measure neurobiological markers (structural and functional brain scans) and clinical markers (memory and thinking skills, quality of life, mood, everyday functioning) to establish the impacts of the intervention.

· Build an evidence base of research demonstrating whether music training provides neuroprotective effects for older people at risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

· Work with memory and cognition clinics in hospitals to translate an intervention program into a sustainable public health service.

While anecdotally we know that music has a profound effect on cognitive function and mental wellbeing, this initiative is required to build a robust evidence base.

Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, Associate Dean, Research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music said: “Music is a social act between composer, performer, and listener. We are interested to know how will intensifying the music experience with educational and post-concert social activities add to quality and enjoyment for older listeners in the early stages of cognitive decline?”

This research has been made possible through a generous gift of $1,757,997 by Ms Barbara Spencer in honour of her late husband, Mr Lance Bennett. Ms Spencer reflected that music was central to both their lives and the 49 years they spent together:

“I am delighted that SCM has such a key role in this research. As an alumnus, it was Lance’s wish to endow the University of Sydney and I feel he would give this research the high priority that I do. We can all truly make a difference by supporting research of quality.”

The initiative will launch on 25 March at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Verbrugghen Hall. The Conservatorium’s Symphony Orchestra will perform its first major public concert since COVID with renowned conductor Ola Rudner.

The Spencer-Bennett NeuroMusic Collaborative is a joint research initiative between the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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