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Neonatal intensive-care unit

Researchers find music beneficial for the development of brains of premature infants

Even before birth, human beings can listen to music. In addition to it, babies in the intensive care unit have a very sensitive ear. This can have a negative effect on their growing brains as the noises of the surroundings can bring unexpected stress.

It has been estimated that almost half of the babies born before the 32nd week in pregnancy will be later diagnosed with brain disorders which can be related to attention or emotional problems. A number of studies have shown that during this critical time, exposure to music can help in stabilizing the heart rate and breathing of a premature baby. It can also improve sleeping and eating patterns.

Music is essentially sound form which is organised in time. A team of scientists in Switzerland have been testing the effects of music to protect the brain and they conducted a double-blind study on the musical effects in the neonatal ICU, whose initial results are quite promising. The study has been published in PNAS.

The premature babies who were born almost four months before their schedule were treated to a daily dose of music which was specially meant for them. Their brain functions showed better development than the ones who were not treated to music. Lara Lordier, a co-author in this study and a researcher at the University of Geneva and University Hospitals of Geneva said that the team arranged the various parts of the day with different types of music. A music to accompany when they wake up, one to interact with them while they are awake and also in their sleeping phase. The study was conducted on 24 full-term babies and 39 premature babies.

Out of 39 premature ones, 20 were treated to the musical intervention. They received approximately eight minutes of very soothing music consisting of bells, harps. The snake charmer’s flute of India was also played during the week five times, which incidentally had the maximum soothing effect on the babies.

With the help of functional MRI on all the three groups of infants, researchers found that neural networks of the children who were exposed to music had higher functional connectivity and the network resembled the full-term babies. The premature babies who listened to music had improved brain salience network and their auditory, sensory, thalamus networks were also improved. While those babies who were not treated to the music had poor functional connectivity.

It is crucial to take care of the babies’ brains in the intensive care unit in a proper strategic way since the brains are still immature. As the age of the participants reaches six, researchers will be able to test whether the cognitive benefits of the music have stuck with them through the years.