As a child growing up in Germany, Erika Skoe taught herself to play German songs on the piano before she was comfortable speaking the language. Skoe, now an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at UConn and a self-proclaimed deceased musician, has made a career out of studying hearing and brain function in young and old people, with a particular focus on the language and music.
Previous research has shown that regular exposure to noise can accelerate brain aging. But other work shows that the brains and cognitive function of older musicians resemble those of someone much younger. For Skoe, these independent lines of research seemed contradictory: if noise exposure is harmful to the brain, why are older musicians neurologically sharper than non-musicians, given that musicians are at greater risk for experience dangerous noise levels?
In a new $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, titled “The Loud Life of the Musician: Implications for Healthy Brain Aging,” Skoe will lead an effort to balance the health benefits and risks of being musician and their interaction as people age. This study was funded by the NIH Sound Health Initiative, a program supporting research into the applications of music to health.
“The popular press is riddled with claims about the anti-aging benefits of playing a musical instrument,” says Skoe. “Not all of them are well supported by scientific evidence, and some claims are even contradictory. By carefully controlling for factors that lead to worse or better brain health at an earlier age, we hope to reconcile these claims in a large sample of musicians and non-musicians.
Nearly 15 years ago, Skoe and a team of collaborators discovered that one of the benefits of musicality is being able to better understand speech in noisy environments, such as restaurants. Some researchers have replicated this finding, but not others. This led Skoe to wonder if musicians’ noise exposure levels could explain these inconsistent results.
Skoe’s lab, in a collaboration with Jennifer Tufts, recruited participants from the college marching band, a group regularly exposed to loud noise, and fitted them with small, wearable devices that measured their noise exposure levels. over a week.
“We found that constant exposure to noise diminished the benefits of musicality,” says Skoe.
In this new study, Skoe will build on that research, adding questions about brain aging and whether the benefits of early musical training persist even for those who no longer play. The study will include college-age musicians, middle-aged musicians, former musicians who played as children, and two non-musician control groups.
Skoe assembled a multidisciplinary team of UConn colleagues: Professor Jennifer Tufts and Assistant Processor Jennifer Mozeiko from the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences; Professor George Kuchel, director of the UConn Center for Aging; and Ofer Harel, associate dean for research and graduate affairs at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of statistics.
We try to avoid assumptions about when and where people are exposed to noise. — Erika Skoe
Skoe’s team will collect data on noise exposure levels for an entire week as well as diaries participants keep and interviews about past noise exposure, to generate a profile of participants’ exposure to noise. noise. This is a new approach because research in the field typically only measures noise exposure when musicians make music.
“We try to avoid assumptions about when and where people are exposed to noise by having them wear a sound recording device for a full week,” says Skoe. “We all experience noise episodes during the day – at the hairdresser, going to a crowded restaurant, walking past a leaf blower. But we really don’t have comprehensive data to understand all the noise a person experiences over their lifetime.”
Participants will undergo comprehensive hearing assessments to measure not only baseline hearing, but also “hidden” loss that is not visible on standard clinical hearing tests.
Researchers will also place sensors on participants’ heads to record electrical brain activity in response to sound. This measure is more likely to be sensitive to the early stages of auditory aging in the brain, which may be present in middle age, a time when people often begin to complain of difficulty listening in noise.
“The earlier the signs of brain aging are spotted, the sooner supportive intervention efforts can be put in place to prevent further declines in health and well-being,” says Skoe. “That drives our focus on middle age.”
As part of this project, Skoe assembled an advisory group of music professionals including a Grammy-winning music producer, a bandleader, music teachers, a music therapist and an audiologist addressing health needs hearing of musicians. This panel will provide feedback to help researchers develop a fuller picture of the real-world implications of work for different types of musicians, increase public awareness of how music could improve health, and arm musicians with knowledge about the when they could reach dangerous noise levels.
If the study results indicate the protective role of musicality in preventing age- and noise-related loss of brain function, it will raise the important public health question of how other populations exposed to noise could share these benefits.
“Can fast-acting therapeutic treatments be developed that mimic the benefits of long-term musical training?” Skoe said. “I see this as the holy grail of this line of work.”