Music Helps to Develop Brains of Premature Infants

Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) in Switzerland have recently used music therapy to improve brain development in premature infants. The music presented was specially composed for prematurely born infants and was found to potentially limit delays in neurological development via functional MRI imaging. Particularly, the neural networks associated in sensory and cognitive function were observed to develop much better. This work was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Overview of the Music Therapy Study

The researchers conducted a double-blind study in which a subset of premature infants was selected to listen to music and was compared to control groups of other premature infants and full-term children. This was done to see if the pre-term babies who listened to music had improved cognition in comparison to the premature control group, and to see how their neurological development compared to full-term infants. Using functional MRI imaging to analyze the infants’ brains, the researchers confirmed that the premature children had impaired connectivity between regions of the brain when compared to the full-term children. Unique to their findings was that the children who listened to music showed significant improvements in their neurodevelopment that resulted in similar brain function to that of full-term babies.

Specifically, the team found that these infants had improved connectivity between the salience network and the auditory, sensorimotor, frontal, thalamus, and precuneus networks.

“The most affected network [in premature infants] is the salience network which detects information and evaluates its relevance at a specific time, and then makes the link with the other brain networks that must act,” says Lara Lordier, PhD in neurosciences and researcher at the HUG and UNIGE. “This network is essential, both for learning and performing cognitive tasks as well as in social relationships or emotional management.”

Creating Ideal Music for Premature Infants

The music presented to these premature infants was composed by Andreas Vollenweider, a musician who had been a part of similar musical projects in the past. Lordier stressed how important it was for the presented music to cater specifically to the needs of the infants in the study.

“We wanted to structure the day with pleasant stimuli at appropriate times: a music to accompany their awakening, a music to accompany their falling asleep, and a music to interact during the awakening phases,” she explained.

Vollenweider sampled different instruments for the children to determine the best fit, landing on the Indian snake charmers’ flute known as the punji. Lordier claimed that this instrument managed to soothe agitated infants very quickly.

“Their attention was drawn to the music!”

The music group listened to Vollenweider’s music, consisting of the punji, bells, and harp five times a week from 33 weeks of age until approximately 40 weeks of age. Vollenweider made three different sound environments, each eight minutes in length. The nurses would place headphones on the baby’s ears as they were waking up or before/after they were feeding, but never when the baby was asleep. This was done to avoid altering the infants sleep patterns.

What’s the Next Step?

Being that the newborns were recruited from the Geneva University Hospital between 2013 and 2016, the children who were involved with the first stages of this project are now 6 years old. Scientists will be meeting with these patients once more to analyze their cognition and other neurological functions. These young children are now at an age where cognitive defects would begin to manifest, so the researchers will be testing whether the optimistic results from years ago were maintained.