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Can playing familiar music boost cognitive response among patients with brain damage?

Past research has revealed a number of interesting insights into how music affects our neural circuits. Studies have shown that listening to music can soothe hospital patients, improve stroke outcomes and promote the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain sending pleasure signals throughout the body.

Now findings recently presented at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness suggest that playing familiar music could enhance cognitive response among patients with brain damage.

In a small study, French researcher Fabien Perrin and colleagues read a list of people's names while recording the brain activity of patients in either in a coma, minimally conscious state or vegetative state. Prior to reading the list, researchers played musical noise or the patient's favorite tune. The experiment was repeated with a group of healthy volunteers.

Results showed that playing music that was familiar to the patient rather than the musical noise increased the subsequent cognitive response to the patient's own name brining them closer to those of healthy participants. New Scientist reports:

Perrin has two theories about what's going on. "Listening to preferred music activates our autobiographical memory - so it could make it easier for the subsequent perception of another autobiographical stimulus such as your name," he says. "Another hypothesis is that music enhances arousal or awareness, so maybe it temporarily increases consciousness and the discrimination of your name becomes easier."

"The familiar music might be causing an emotional arousal effect, and once [the patient with brain damage is] aroused, there is a small window that opens for increased communication and the brain responds to the name," suggests Carsten Finke, a neurologist at Charite Medical School in Berlin, Germany, who was not involved in the study.

Researchers say that confirming the findings could prove useful in rethinking the sensory environments of patients in intensive care.

Previously: Using music to improve communication skills in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, Examining how the brain processes music and Hospital music program helps soothe patients' "heavy hearts"
Photo by Wellcome Images

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