New medical imaging reveals the neural networks of premature infants develop much better when the babies listen to music designed specifically for them.
Thanks to amazing medical advances, premature babies have a much better chance of survival. But even with this advanced technology, preemies are still at risk of developing neuropsychological disorders. Researchers at the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) in Switzerland found preemies’ neural networks, which are involved in many sensory and cognitive functions, develop much better when the babies listen to music written especially for them. Since the neural deficits of premature babies are due largely to unexpected and stressful stimuli and a lack of stimuli adapted to their condition, the Geneva researchers wanted to add pleasant and structuring stimuli to their environments.
"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,” explains Lara Lordier, PhD in neurosciences and researcher at the HUG. "The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers' flute (the punji). Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music!"
Composer Andreas Vollenweider wrote three sound environments of eight minutes each, featuring punji, harp and bells pieces. The study was then conducted using a group of premature infants who listened to the music, a control group of premature infants and a control group of full-term newborns to assess whether the brain development of premature infants who had listened to the music would be more similar to that of full-term babies.
Without music, premature babies generally had poorer functional connectivity between brain areas than full-term babies, which confirmed the negative effect of prematurity. When babies are in the NICU, they are overwhelmed by stimuli, such as doors opening and closing and alarms going off. Full-term babies have more time to adjust to the rhythm and sounds around them, which is why premature infants aren’t able to develop the link between different sounds as easily. But the neural networks of children who heard Vollenweider's music were significantly improved, and resulted in brain network organizations more similar to that of full-term infants.
The first children enrolled in the project are now 6 years old—the age cognitive problems begin to be detectable. Scientists will meet with them again to conduct a full cognitive and socio-emotional assessment, and observe whether the positive outcomes originally measured in their first weeks of life made a larger impact down the line.