Babies who are born more than eight weeks prematurely often don’t get the most pleasant welcome into the world, having to spend their first few days, weeks, or even months of life in an intensive care unit (ICU). Because this isn’t the ideal environment for the infant brain to develop in, many preterm infants later suffer from learning difficulties or social or emotional disorders. However, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that listening to music during these first critical weeks as a human can help the brain to develop normally.
By the time a full-term baby is born, it has spent enough weeks inside the calm, nourishing environment of its mother’s womb to have developed all of the complex neurological infrastructure that it needs to start its life. However, if a baby is born early, some vital neural connections may not have been formed yet, meaning this process has to occur after birth.
Yet ICUs can be stressful, and all of the sights, sounds, and other stimuli that a preterm infant is likely to experience while in hospital can easily disrupt this essential neurological development.
In particular, premature babies tend to suffer from deficiencies within the brain’s salience network, which is responsible for determining the importance of stimuli and communicating with other brain networks to coordinate an appropriate response. Connectivity between the salience network and brain areas such as the thalamus, or the sensorimotor or auditory networks is often disrupted in preterm infants, resulting in reduced cognitive function or difficulties managing emotions and social relationships later on.
To address this problem, researchers from the University of Geneva and the University Hospitals of Geneva sought to create an environment that would foster healthy brain development in premature babies during their time in an ICU. Because the auditory system is one of the earliest to form in human brains, the team decided to expose these babies to relaxing music at key points during the day.
Composer Andreas Vollenweider played a range of different instruments before an audience of preterm babies in order to determine which produced the calmest reactions, and ultimately decided to write his soothing score using harps, bells, and an Indian snake charmer’s flute called a punji.
Vollenweider produced three eight-minute musical pieces. The first of these was played to babies in an ICU just as they were waking up, while the second was played to them during their waking hours, and the third while they were falling asleep.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the premature babies in their study, the researchers found that the neurological architecture of those that had been exposed to the music was much more akin to that of a full-term baby, in comparison to those that had not heard the music.
Some of those involved in the study are now approaching their sixth birthday, and the team are planning to follow up their research by examining the cognitive, social, and emotional wellbeing of these children.