Scientists are playing music to premature babies to help build their brains

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When a baby is born prematurely is has a high risk of developing certain neuropsychological disorders.

Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) have came up with a unique solution to this – playing music to them that has been written especially for them.

The results of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) show that when premature infants are played this music, their neural networks – especially one particular network involved in a range of sensory and cognitive functions – will develop much better.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the HUG takes in around 80 children each year that have been born between 24 and 32 weeks of pregnancy. Most of these will survive but approximately half will develop neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning difficulties, emotional disorders, and attentional disorders.

The woman who directed this work, Petra Hüppi, who is a professor at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Head of the HUG Development and Growth Division, said:

“At birth, these babies’ brains are still immature. Brain development must therefore continue in the intensive care unit, in an incubator, under very different conditions than if they were still in their mother’s womb. Brain immaturity, combined with a disturbing sensory environment, explains why neural networks do not develop normally.”

Music seemed to be a logical option to try out, given that the hearing system is functional early on.

“Luckily, we met the composer Andreas Vollenweider, who had already conducted musical projects with fragile populations and who showed great interest in creating music suitable for premature children,” said Hüppi.

Vollenweider had to choose which instruments would be most suitable to use in the music, so he played many different kinds of instruments to the children, with a nurse present who specialized in developmental care.

“The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers’ flute (the punji),” said Lara Lordier. “Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music!”

During the research, it was found that without playing music, premature babies had poorer functional brain connectivity than full-term babies, which confirmed the negative effect of prematurity.

The first children that were enrolled in the study are now 6 years old. This is the age that cognitive problems become detectable. Scientists will soon meet with their young patients to carry out a full socio-emotional assessment to see if the positive outcomes that were measured in their first weeks of live have been sustained.

Let’s hope so!