It seems that even the tiniest humans can appreciate a good tune. Swiss researchers have shown that specially composed music can improve the development of premature babies’ brains.

In the UK, as in Switzerland, around one per cent of babies are born ‘very prematurely’, i.e. before the 32nd week of pregnancy. Medical advances mean that the majority of these babies will survive, but roughly half will go on to develop neuropsychological disorders, such as learning difficulties or attentional and emotional disorders.

This is because the premature babies’ immature brains are developing in very different conditions to their mother’s womb. Intensive care, for example, can be a stressful and noisy environment, with doors banging and alarms clanging.

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Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) wanted to find out whether music could help to counteract this. They teamed up with the composer Andreas Vollenweider to create some custom-made sounds.

“It was important that these musical stimuli were related to the baby’s condition,” said Lara Lordier, a researcher at the HUG and UNIGE. “We wanted to structure the day with pleasant stimuli at appropriate times: a music to accompany their awakening, a music to accompany their falling asleep, and a music to interact during the awakening phases.”

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Vollenweider wrote three sound environments for the little ones, each eight minutes long and featuring either a pungi (an Indian snake charmer’s flute), harp or bells.

The researchers scanned the babies’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and found that those who listened to music had improved brain development compared to those who didn’t. In particular, the babies had increased connectivity in brain circuity involving the ‘salience network’, which detects incoming information and decides what’s relevant – important for learning, cognitive tasks and social behaviour.

The first children enrolled in this project are now six years old, so the researchers hope to find out whether these early benefits have been carried through into childhood.

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James Lloyd
James LloydStaff writer, BBC Science Focus

James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.