Musically Powered Brain Recovery

Your Brain on Art was a wonderful collaboration of neuroscience and art, featuring some great musical talent to inspire Branch Out's vision of a world free from neurological disorders. As you follow the link below to relive the musical centerpiece of the evening, its worth considering how this auditory masterpiece can influence your brain. 

Relive the inspiring music collaboration of Reuben and the Dark and The Lily String Quartet at YBOA 2019

In line with the bigger collaborative theme of YBOA, music has an amazing ability to connect people on many different levels. At one level, music is able to act as a framework for human interaction. If you need an example of this, try dancing with a partner without music, then marvel at how much more in sync your movements are after music is added. At another level, music is also able to bring us together emotionally, crossing all sorts of demographic divides. Perhaps you felt a sense of wonder as you listened to the collaborative Bow and Arrow at YBOA and Journey's Don't Stop Believing never fails to get an entire room singing passionately during karaoke. While there are countless examples of how music can bridge the gaps between people, how is this useful for healing an injured brain?

The brain has the amazing capacity to self-heal, a process called neuroplasticity, and a key hormone for this process is called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (or BDNF for short). When someone suffers a brain injury, BDNF is instrumental (pun intended) for the brain to re-wire itself and adapt to the injury. Stress has the unfortunate side effect of blocking the healing actions of BDNF 1, so one way that music can promote brain recovery is simply by stress reduction so the brain is free to heal without stress hormones getting in the way. Ask any neurological patient about being hospitalized for a brain injury, awaiting a brain surgery, or receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease and I'm sure they will all tell you that these all are extremely stressful life events. As social creatures, the bonding and positive emotions that can come from musical experiences can mitigate the barrier of stress to brain recovery. 

Main Points


Music can promote stress reduction through companionship and emotional invigoration

In animal studies, music can directly promote neuroplasticity

This could make music a catalyst for brain healing when paired with other therapies 

In neuroscience, we often study animals as a way to get a deeper understanding of how the brain works. While neuroplasticity is remarkably hard to study in humans, we can study it a lot easier in lab rats. Several studies have found that playing music for mice and rats can boost levels of BDNF across the brain 234. This means that there may be something about music that directly stimulates neuroplasiticy within our brains, and thus the capacity to heal after injury. Perhaps this is why music can be such a strong catalyst for brain recovery anecdotally. Not only does it promote a sense of companionship and reduce the negative effects of stress, but it could directly promote neuroplasticity. Now imagine if the catalytic power of music was paired with rehabilitation and therapeutic techniques? That's the recipe for a super-charged road to brain recovery. 

The musical neuroscience research reviewed here makes for a strong case bringing music into health care settings. Like many therapies in their early stages, we are still learning the details of how music does its magic but it seems neuroplasticity could be the key to music's acceleration of the brain's recovery. The Instrumental Society of Calgary was an important partner for YBOA and has already been bringing live music experiences to neurological patients in Foothills Hospital. Branch Out funded students Julie Joyce and Asha Hollis have been apart of this initiative, and are actively seeking musicians to help catalyze brain recovery, so in the collaborative theme of YBOA, please reach out if you want to lend your musical talents. One final super cool part of this music outreach program is that it was inspired by ongoing music therapy research at Foothills HospitalWhile this article lays out the rationale for why music should be in health care settings, doing some science to know for sure and in what ways music is most useful is what Branch Out is all about. 


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Ty the NeuroGuy

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...about some other ways that music could promote brain recovery

...about the healthcare outreach program of the Instrumental Society of Calgary

...about the wonderfully talented Lily Strings Quartet

...about the inspirational Reuben and the Dark


Inspired By...

1. Pluchino, N., Russo, M., Santoro, A. N., Litta, P., Cela, V., & Genazzani, A. R. (2013). Steroid hormones and BDNF. Neuroscience239, 271-279.

2. Chikahisa, S., Sei, H., Morishima, M., Sano, A., Kitaoka, K., Nakaya, Y., & Morita, Y. (2006). Exposure to music in the perinatal period enhances learning performance and alters BDNF/TrkB signaling in mice as adults. Behavioural brain research169(2), 312-319.

3. Angelucci, F., Ricci, E., Padua, L., Sabino, A., & Tonali, P. A. (2007). Music exposure differentially alters the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor in the mouse hypothalamus. Neuroscience letters429(2-3), 152-155.

4. Marzban, M., Shahbazi, A., Tondar, M., Soleimani, M., Bakhshayesh, M., Moshkforoush, A., ... & Joghataei, M. T. (2011). Effect of Mozart music on hippocampal content of BDNF in postnatal rats. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience2(3), 21-26.