The recently published study sheds light on the molecular mechanisms underlying music therapy.

According to a new study recently published by the University of Helsinki, listening to a favourite piece of classical music can enhance the genes involved with learning and memory whilst inhibiting the genes known to cause neurodegeneration and memory-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of listening to classical music has been explored in multiple previous studies, including research into improved scholastic achievement and cognitive function in school aged children, and the social advantages of community music in the elderly, but this new study is the first to explore neurological changes at a molecular level.

In the recent effort to better understand the effects of music on our minds, the Finnish study group investigated how listening to classical music affected the “cognitive gene expression profiles” of both classical music lovers and less musically experienced participants. Both groups listened to Mozart’s Violin Concert No 3 in G major as part of the experiment.

The results demonstrated that listening to the music showed enhanced activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion, sometimes called the pleasure hormone, and improved synaptic function leading to better learning and memory.

Perhaps most interestingly the study has lead to a better understanding of the evolutionary advantages of musical aptitude. One of the crucial genes identified in the study as playing a vital role in a person’s ability to sing and understand music, synuclein-alpha (SNCA), is a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease. Listening to classical music was found to improve the performance of this important gene. “The up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans,” said Dr. Irma Järvelä, the leader of the study. It is hoped that further research may lead to improved, musical based therapies for Parkinson’s and similar and conditions.

In contrast, the study also showed that negative neurological genetic traits could be inhibited, such as those associated with neurodegeneration, demonstrating on a molecular level what has been described as “the neuroprotective role of music”. However the benefits observed in the study may only apply to committed fans of classical music. “The effect was only detectable in musically experienced participants, suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects”, researchers remark.

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