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Music can affect your genes, study finds

March 15, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Helsinki
and World Science staff

Lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic can en­hance the ac­ti­vity of genes in­flu­enc­ing the flow of brain chem­i­cals, learn­ing and mem­o­ry, a study has found.

But the stu­dy, by the Uni­vers­ity of Hel­sin­ki, found that the ef­fect was only de­tect­a­ble in “mu­sic­ally ex­pe­ri­enced” lis­ten­ers.

Sev­er­al of the genes show­ing en­hanced ac­ti­vity are al­so shared by song­birds, where they’re re­spon­si­ble for song learn­ing and sing­ing, the re­search­ers found. That sug­gests a com­mon ev­o­lu­tion­ary back­ground of sound per­cep­tion across spe­cies, they added.

The bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors be­hind mu­sic-lis­ten­ing are largely un­known, al­though mu­sic was known to in­duce sev­er­al changes in brain cells and phys­i­ol­o­gy.

The study found that such lis­ten­ing al­so en­hanced the ac­ti­vity of genes in­volved in gen­er­at­ing and trans­port­ing a brain chem­i­cal known as dopamine. Dopamine is known in turn to in­flu­ence brain pro­cesses gov­ern­ing emo­tion­al re­sponse, move­ment, and the ca­pa­city for pleas­ure and pain.

The mu­sic was al­so as­so­ci­at­ed with low­er ac­ti­vity in genes linked to brain de­genera­t­ion, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. On the oth­er hand, they said, it in­creased ac­ti­vity in a gene called SNCA—which past re­search has tied to both Parkin­son’s dis­ease risk and mu­sical ap­ti­tude. SNCA is al­so be­lieved to con­trib­ute to song learn­ing in song­birds.

The Finn­ish re­search­ers stud­ied the ef­fects in both mu­sic­ally ex­pe­ri­enced and inex­pe­ri­enced par­ti­ci­pants. All the par­ti­ci­pants lis­tened to W.A. Mozart’s vi­o­lin con­cert No. 3 in G major, K. 216, which lasts 20 min­utes.

The find­ings “sug­gest a shared ev­o­lu­tion­ary back­ground of sound per­cep­tion be­tween vo­cal­iz­ing birds and hu­mans,” said the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, Ir­ma Järvelä, adding that they could al­so help give fur­ther in­sights in­to the ef­fects of mu­sic ther­a­py. The results are re­ported in the re­search jour­nal PeerJ.


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Listening to classical music can enhance the activity of genes influencing the flow of various brain chemicals, learning and memory, a study has found. But the study, by the University of Helsinki, found that the effect was only detectable in “musically experienced” listeners. Several of the genes showing enhanced activity are also shared by songbirds, where they’re responsible for song learning and singing, the researchers found. That suggests a common evolutionary background of sound perception across species, they added. The biological factors behind music-listening are largely unknown, although music was known to induce several changes in brain cells and physiology. The study found that such listening also enhanced the activity of genes involved in generating and transporting a brain chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine is known in turn to influence brain processes governing emotional response, movement, and the capacity for feeling pleasure and pain. The music was also associated with lower activity in genes linked to brain degeneration, the investigators found. On the other hand, they said, it increased activity in a gene called SNCA—which past research has tied to both Parkinson’s disease risk and musical aptitude. SNCA is also believed to contribute to song learning in songbirds. The Finnish researchers studied the effects in both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart’s violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes. The findings “suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans,” said the study’s lead author, Irma Järvelä, adding that they could also help give further insights into the effects of music therapy.