Project Title: 

The Noisy Life of the Musician: Implications for Healthy Brain Aging

Funding detail: 
University of Connecticut
Principal Investigator: 
Erika Skoe
Start year: 
Project summary: 

Playing a musical instrument is a popular childhood and adult activity with documented health benefits. One of the most provocative, but least understood, proposed health benefits is preserved brain function in advanced age. Playing a musical instrument, however, can also pose significant health hazards, including those that come from routine exposure to noisy (loud) environments. Beyond the risks of hearing loss from loud environments, noise exposure is a significant risk factor for age-related functional declines. While both the benefits and risks of musical training have been widely studied, little attention has been given to their interplay. To understand the mechanisms that mediate the effects of musical training on the human brain, we must develop a more complete accounting of the risk factors that could counteract the benefits of musical training and the degree to which benefits persist in the face of these risks. To more fully harness the therapeutic benefits of music, we also need a better account of whether the benefits persist after a musician stops playing their instrument. These knowledge gaps motivate the proposed work on auditory brain aging, in which lifelong musicians will be compared to controls and to ex-musicians who have not played a musical instrument since childhood. The proposed work is grounded in our published studies of auditory brain aging, and our published and pilot studies on the interplay of musical training and noise exposure on the young adult auditory brain. The proposed work aims (1) to characterize current and lifetime noise exposure from music and non-music activities, (2) to investigate relations among lifelong musical training, lifetime noise exposure, and auditory-brain aging, and (3) to investigate relations between childhood musical training and later-life auditory-brain function. For all three aims, young adults (18- 24 years) will be compared to middle-aged adults (45-60 years). We hypothesize that music, as a form of acoustic enrichment and training, may mitigate the impact of noise injuries and age-related decline by strengthening the neural systems most vulnerable to being compromised. Our methodological approach is innovative, comprehensive, and corroborated by our prior work. We will use a novel combination of personal sound dosimetry and structured interviews to characterize the risk of noise injury. Noise exposure data will be combined with validated methods to study auditory brain aging across multiple neural circuits, using a statistical design that accounts for selection bias and confounding variables such as socioeconomic status and cochlear function. Most studies of human auditory aging focus on older adults (60+ years), with less attention on studying early-stage aging when opportunities for the prevention of functional decline are greater. This motivates our decision to focus on early-stage aging. The outcomes of this work may suggest new approaches to promote healthy brain aging and clinical recommendations about harnessing the therapeutic properties of music training to maximize benefits and minimize hazards. Our multidisciplinary study team has complementary expertise in auditory neuroscience (Skoe), noise exposure (Tufts), biostatistics (Harel), and aging (Kuchel).

For more information on this project, see their NIH Research Portfolio.