Deep within the human brain, there’s a fascinating phenomenon that has captivated us for centuries—an intricate interplay between music and the brain. From soothing lullabies to exhilarating symphonies, music possesses boundless power to evoke emotions, ignite creativity, and offer us diverse sensory experiences.


Scientists are currently dedicated to unraveling the mystery of how music influences human neural circuits, shedding light on its impact on various regions and functions of the brain. We are honored to have invited Professor Du Yi from Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, to explore the effects of music on the brain from an anti-aging perspective.


Question: Please briefly introduce your research background.


Professor Du: I took my undergraduate courses in medicine, but when it came to choosing my doctoral program, I developed a strong interest in psychology, especially in unraveling the mysteries of human brains. Consequently, I switched to a Ph.D. program in psychology. During my doctoral studies, my research primarily focused on auditory studies using rats as subjects, encompassing both physiological and behavioral research. However, in the later stages of my Ph.D. program and during my postdoctoral research, I became increasingly fascinated by the human brain and its processing of advanced auditory signals, such as language and music. As a result, after establishing my own laboratory, I have been dedicated to researching how the human brain comprehends language, appreciates music, and the neural mechanisms underlying these processes.


As people age, the structure and function of the brain will degenerate. One significant change that impacts the quality of life for the elderly is the deterioration of hearing. In noisy environments like streets or restaurants, it becomes increasingly challenging for the elderly to discern what others are saying. This not only affects their social interactions but also their emotional well-being and even cause premature dementia. Therefore, we are deeply interested in understanding how the elderly manage speech comprehension in such noisy settings and whether they employ additional cognitive mechanisms for this purpose.


In a paper we published in Nature Communications in 2016, we discovered that despite the decline in perceptual processing abilities among the elderly, they tend to engage additional brain regions, particularly those associated with speech motor control, to actively predict what others will say. This proactive, top-down prediction mechanism helps the elderly better compensate for their declining perceptual abilities, enabling them to comprehend language more effectively, especially in complex environments.


Building upon this background, in our study published in PNAS in 2017, we found that young individuals, particularly young musicians, excel at speech comprehension in complex environments. We were interested in uncovering the underlying neural mechanisms, and our results revealed that young musicians possess stronger perceptual-motor integration capabilities. They rely not only on auditory input but also on predicting and compensating for speech motor movements and integrating cross-modal information to aid their speech comprehension in intricate environments.


These two studies suggest a potential connection between perception and motor. It appears that the elderly may rely more on advanced, top-down perceptual-motor predictions and integration, while young musicians, attributable to their musical training experience, have advatanges in utilizing perceptual-motor integration for speech comprehension. Naturally, this leads us to inquire whether the elderly, through systematic musical training, can also enhance their cross-modal information integration abilities. Will such training potentially aid them in improving their speech comprehension within complex environments?


Based on this premise, we embarked on a series of subsequent studies and found that compared to elder non-musicians, elder musicians are better at speech perception in noisy environments. In 2021, we published related behavioral research in Ear and Hearing, and followed up with new studies whose most recent findings have been published in Science Advances.


Question: You mentioned that you recently published a study in Science Advances. Could you please introduce the new findings from this research?


Professor Du: The recently published study in Science Advances is a featured cover article. We recruited three groups of subjects: one consisted of young non-musicians as a control group, but our primary focus was on the other two groups—elder non-musicians and elder musicians.


We had them perform a visual-auditory speech syllable discrimination task in noisy environment, while monitoring their brain activity using fMRI. They would hear different syllables while simultaneously viewing matching lip movements on a screen. Their task was to determine what exactly they have heard against background noise of varying intensities.


We found that behaviorally, the performance of elder musicians was closer to that of young individuals, with no significant differences in their performance, even in moderate and light noise backgrounds. In other words, musical training experience can assist the elderly in achieving performance similar to that of young individuals. This finding leads to the question: what are the underlying mechanisms?


Firstly, compared to elder non-musicians, elder musicians exhibited neural processing patterns (also known as representation patterns) that were more similar to those of young individuals in both the left and right perceptual-motor regions when processing syllables in noisy environment. Sometimes, there’s even no significant differences between the two groups. In fact, their performance was significantly better than that of elder non-musicians who displayed a noticeable decline in distinguishing different speech sounds compared to young individuals. Their brains struggled to distinguish between, for example, “ba” and “da”. In contrast, elder musicians maintained strong neural differentiation abilities, similar to young individuals. This indicates that musical training experience can enhance and rejuvenate brain function which we refer to as functional preservation.


Furthermore, we also discovered that elder musicians, in contrast to elder non-musicians, activated a broader range of brain regions within the frontoparietal network. These brain regions are associated with working memory and cognitive control. This suggests that elder musicians are capable of engaging more advanced brain regions for behavioral compensation.


Simultaneously, elder musicians exhibited greater suppression of a brain region known as the angular gyrus compared to elder non-musicians. As a core component of the default brain network, angular gyrus is associated with autobiographical memory and long-term memory. Therefore, it tends to be activated when we are not engaged in specific tasks and relatively suppressed when we perform cognitive tasks. When we engage in cognitive tasks that require our attention to external stimuli, it becomes necessary to suppress brain regions in default network to prevent them from interfering.


We found that elder musicians excel at suppressing this brain region, indicating their ability to focus more attentively on external stimuli and suppress irrelevant information. This enhanced suppression also assists them in achieving better behavioral performance. Elder musicians achieve improved performance by employing additional activation or inhibition of certain brain regions, a mechanism referred to as functional compensation.


This mechanism is related to the first one mentioned earlier — functional preservation. We found that these two mechanisms are interconnected and mutually influence each other. When an elderly possess stronger abilities to activate the frontoparietal network and to inhibit the angular gyrus, his/her neural representation in the perceptual-motor brain regions also improves, rejuvenated to the level of young individuals. This suggests that functional compensation can support enhanced functional preservation. Based on these two mechanisms, musical training experience can assist elder individuals in speech perception in noisy environments and improve their behavioral performance.

Question: Based on your research, how often does one need to play a musical instrument to potentially help preserve cognitive function and counteract the negative effects of aging?


Professor Du: In this study, we asked the elderly to maintain a minimum of one hour of training per week within the last three years. Although they self-reported a substantial training frequency over the preceding three to four decades, it was challenging to track their training durations during the 1960s and 1970s due to historical reasons. Therefore, our focus was solely on the training frequency in the most recent three years.


Question: Is it possible to achieve cognitive protection effects through temporary practice if one had no prior experience in playing a musical instrument?


Professor Du: That’s a great question. What we’re currently conducting is a cross-sectional study where we directly compare the elderly with long-term musical training to those without such experience to observe differences, and we have found some. Additionally, there are numerous other longitudinal studies, both long-term and short-term, indicating that brief periods of musical training lasting from three to six months can also enhance language processing abilities for the elderly.


Question: Can we achieve the same effects by listening to music?


Professor Du: We all hope that passive music listening can yield similar positive effects, but current findings do not allow us to draw that conclusion definitively. Our study focuses on the effects of actively engaging in musical training, which involves multiple systems including visual, auditory, motor, emotional, and attentional processes. This multi-system engagement may have a more pronounced impact. However, listening to music also has its own benefits, such as mood regulation, stress relief, and potential improvement of focus and attention.


Question: The participants in your study were engaged in a visual-auditory syllable discrimination task. Have you considered conducting other types of tasks?


Professor Du: Both musicians and non-musicians in our study have completed other types of tasks. One of these tasks involved auditory working memory, where participants were presented with sequences of numbers of varying lengths and asked to repeat them in the original order or reversed order. Additionally, we assessed their executive control abilities, including the classic Stroop effect (the interference of literal meaning in font color).


We found that elder musicians exhibited superior auditory working memory compared to elder non-musicians. While we didn’t observe better performance in cognitive control tasks like the Stroop effect in our study, it’s noteworthy that other research has indicated that musical experience can enhance working memory and executive control capabilities.


The reason why we conducted the visual-auditory syllable discrimination task in our study was that speech processing involves real-time processing for everyone, and identifying consonants, vowels, and tones is crucial for recognition. Therefore, syllable discrimination tasks serve as a fundamental unit for speech processing.


Question: Compared to non-musicians, musicians exhibit superior speech perception abilities in noisy environments. Do you believe this is solely attributable to their musical training, or could there be other factors at play?


Professor Du: We chose musical training for our study because it represents a multi-system training approach that is relatively enjoyable. Moreover, it has been associated with improvements in various cognitive functions, such as working memory, selective attention, and cognitive control, among others. This includes findings from our research: stronger inhibition of the default brain network and enhanced modulation of the frontoparietal attention network among musicians. Therefore, we believe it is likely associated with musical training.


However, since our study is cross-sectional, it’s important to acknowledge that there may be other differences between musicians and non-musicians in various aspects, and we cannot definitively rule out whether these differences are caused by innate factors or acquired ones.


It’s possible that some individuals become musicians because of better innate structural and functional foundations or other traits that guide them toward a musical path. Therefore, our current cross-sectional study cannot definitively confirm the involvement of other factors, especially personal traits that might contribute to superior speech processing abilities. To address this question, conducting a longitudinal study would be ideal to establish whether these effects are indeed the results of musical training.


Question: Are there any other studies examining similar topics? If so, are there any similarities and discrepancies between those studies and yours?


Professor Du: Many researchers have indeed investigated whether musical training can assist the elderly in improving their speech perception, and they have found similar results at the behavioral level. What sets our new study apart from theirs is that we were able to identify cognitive neural mechanisms supporting both functional preservation and compensation in the brain. This allowed us to provide better explanation in terms of mechanisms to improved behavioral performance.


Question: Has this study shed new light on anti-aging and brain health? Are there potential clinical application value of the findings, such as developing targeted interventions or treatment methods to enhance speech perception or other cognitive abilities among the elderly?


Professor Du: We believe that musical training can have a neuroprotective effect on the brain by bringing it back to youth.


While our study focused on the effects of long-term musical training, in the future, we are interested in investigating the minimum durations and frequencies of training that might also yield similar outcomes.


This also reminds us that regardless of age, if you can start learning a musical instrument or even singing as early as possible, it may potentially slow down the aging process of the brain. Therefore, we currently advocate for the general public to consider learning music if plausible and to start engaging with music.


In terms of clinical value, we are interested in exploring whether music therapy could be employed in the context of certain cognitive degenerative disorders among the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease, to improve their memory and language abilities.


Question: Could music-based games potentially have similar effects?


Professor Du: That’s a great approacg. Games like Rhythm Master can be effective training methods. We also refer to this as digital therapy. Using music as a form of digital therapy holds great promise for the future because gamified training like this is undoubtedly more intriguing and appealing for the elderly get fully engaged.


Interviewed & Edited by: Ashley Wang
Proofread by: Xu Yunke