Sunday, December 14, 2008

Listen to Music, Lower Your Cholesterol

Sound Research

Scientists are discovering new physical and mental benefits to listening to music

JULIET CHUNG (Wall Street Journal)

Researchers have found that music can affect people, animals and even plants in many ways. Now, several small-scale studies suggest some surprising benefits of listening to music, from the brain down to the blood vessels.

A team at Stanford University's School of Medicine found that listening to music might hold an adaptive evolutionary purpose. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to gauge activity in 18 people's brains as they listened to obscure 18th-century symphonies. The team found that activity in the regions of the brain associated with paying attention, making predictions and updating events peaked during the short periods of silence between movements.

Published last year in the journal Neuron, the study provides a glimpse of how the brain organizes events, says lead author Vinod Menon, and suggests that listening to music can help sharpen the ability to anticipate events and sustain focus.

Finnish researchers have found that music could help aid cognitive recovery soon after a stroke. The study, which followed 54 patients and was published February in the journal Brain, found that verbal memory and focused attention improved significantly more in stroke patients who listened to their favorite music several hours daily than in those patients who listened to audio books or to nothing at all. Patients were randomly assigned to the music group and listened to the music for at least an hour daily, for two months, during their acute recovery phase.

Listening to your favorite music can also promote the functioning of blood vessels, according to a new study out of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Researchers found that the diameter of the average upper-arm blood vessel expanded by 26% when subjects listened to music they had previously selected for making them feel joyful. The diameter constricted by 6% when subjects listened to music that made them feel anxious. Blood-vessel expansion indicates nitric oxide is being released, which can reduce the formation of blood clots and LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, according to Michael Miller, the study's principal investigator and director of preventive cardiology at the medical center. The results were presented in November before the American Heart Association.

Of the 10 participants, several chose country music as their joyful listening selection and several said heavy metal made them feel anxious. But that says more about the participants than about any inherent vascular benefits of the genres themselves, says Dr. Miller. "I was listening to Hootie & the Blowfish last night and I had, I'm sure, a lot of endorphins being released," he says.

A study published in January by the Cochrane Collaboration, a London-based nonprofit that publishes reviews of health-care interventions, suggests that listening to or making music with trained therapists can help in treating depression. The group found five randomized studies that examined music therapy; four reported that depression symptoms lessened more among those who were randomly assigned to music therapy than those who received treatment that did not involve music. The fifth study reported no significant change. Further research needs to be done given the small number of credible studies in the area, the study says.

Other new studies confirm old hunches. A team at Brunel University in England found that certain music deemed motivational can enhance a recreational athlete's endurance and increase pleasure while exercising. In blind experiments on 30 participants, tracks from artists like Queen, Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers increased endurance on a treadmill by up to 15%, says Costas Karageorghis, a reader in sports psychology at Brunel.

Recreational athletes might be served well by picking workout music that is up-tempo, has "bright, major harmonies" and is studded with encouraging phrases, says Mr. Karageorghis. "There's a reason Olivia Newton-John's 'Let's Get Physical' was a huge hit" for workouts, he says.