A donor-funded collaboration between the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music is exploring whether musical interventions could help those at risk of cognitive decline.
Music has long been recognised for its profound effects on mental health and wellbeing. Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle spoke of its ability to promote order in the soul, while music programs were used during World Wars I and II to aid the recovery of soldiers.
"Studies of young people have shown that playing a musical instrument increases brain connectivity," says Professor Sharon Naismith, lead researcher at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre (BMC).
Although anecdotally we know that music can be a powerful and highly effective form of health intervention for older people experiencing cognitive decline, we have very little scientific evidence.
In 2022, around half a million Australians are living with dementia, which is expected to more than double by 2058. With researchers yet to find a cure, a key question focuses on prevention: can we slow the rate of cognitive decline to avoid dementia?
Joining forces with a multidisciplinary team of musicians, psychologists, bioengineers, imaging experts and neurologists, Naismith is determined to find out.
In collaboration with the Memory and Cognition Clinic at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the researchers will engage older people at risk of cognitive decline in musical activities, such as learning an instrument, taking part in a choir or orchestra, listening to music, or attending a concert or musical discussion group.
They're hoping to create an evidence base to support the wider implementation of musical interventions for people with mild cognitive impairment, the stage before dementia develops.
"It’s incredibly thrilling to be involved in this multidisciplinary research program to combine music, which has undeniable cultural benefits, with other disciplines, to contribute to solving real-world problems in medical and brain research," says Professor Peres Da Costa.
"Music training and music making enable us to use our senses in such complex patterns – developing our motor skills and through our emotional reactions to music. All of us know someone who has been tragically affected by dementia and we’re interested to know how the music training experience, intensified with educational, concert and other related activities, will improve the neuroplasticity for participants in the early stages of cognitive decline."
The research program has been made possible through the generous gift of more than $1.7 million by Barbara Spencer, in honour of her late partner, Lance Bennett (BA(Hons) '58). The Spencer-Bennett NeuroMusic Collaborative stemmed from conversations between Spencer and the Advancement team.
Spencer described her vision for a gift that would create new research parameters and lead to the possibility of health benefits for people affected by dementia. She expressed interest in prevention, and as the conversations unfolded, Spencer reflected on the love of music that she and Lance shared over their 49 years as a couple.
"Both of us were educated to enjoy classical music. When we first set up house in Darwin together in the mid-1960s, a quality sound system was given priority over tables and chairs", Spencer says.
Our visits to Sydney were planned around music performances, including at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which will always hold many happy memories.
Lance Bennett won a scholarship to the University of Sydney, majoring in French and English, before studying at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). He worked as a theatre, TV, and radio actor for several years.
Bennett also developed close personal connections with First Nations communities through his mother, an art collector, and was the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation’s director for 25 years. Bennett and Spencer worked with communities across Cape York, Arnhem Land, and the Kimberley, supporting Aboriginal leaders seeking to promote their art and maintain cultural traditions.
Lance Bennett sadly died in 2013, just over a year after emergency neurosurgery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he received outstanding care.
"As an alumnus, it was Lance's wish to leave a legacy to the University of Sydney and I am delighted that the Sydney Conservatorium has such a key role in this research. It is especially satisfying to me to be able to reciprocate by sponsoring this music intervention in RPA Hospital’s catchment," Spencer says.
"I feel he would give this research the high priority that I do. Although Lance and I had little direct experience of the condition, it is a great privilege to have this opportunity to support this vitally important work. We can all truly make a difference by supporting research of quality."
Through the generosity of the Spencer-Bennett gift, the University has been able to form this innovative multidisciplinary collaboration to better understand the onset of neurodegenerative disease and to explore solutions in the present, with the potential for long-lasting impacts in the future.
"We believe music can potentially boost our neuroplasticity, our resilience, and also potentially slow cognitive decline, but we don’t have sufficient and robust evidence to support this claim," says Naismith, from the BMC.
"That’s what this opportunity provides us with."
Lead researchers: Professor Sharon Naismith, Professor Neal Peres Da Costa
Music researchers: Associate Professor Helen Mitchell, Dr Joseph Toltz
BMC researchers: Associate Professor Rebekah Ahmed, Professor Cindy (Shin-Yi) Lin, Professor Lee-Fay Low
Postdoctoral researcher: Dr Philip Eames (SCM)
Written by Cassandra Hill, photography by Louise Cooper