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Listening to Classical Music Modulates Expression of Genes Involved in Brain Function

Although listening to music is common in all societies, the biological determinants of listening to music are largely unknown. According to the most recent study, listening to classical music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning, and memory, and down-regulated the genes mediating neurodegeneration. Several of the up-regulated genes were known to be responsible for song-learning and singing in songbirds, suggesting a common evolutionary background of sound perception across species. Listening to music represents a complex cognitive function of the human brain, which is known to induce several neuronal and physiological changes. However, the molecular background underlying the effects of listening to music is largely unknown. A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of 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. As noted, listening to music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning, and memory. One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. SNCA is also known to contribute to song-learning in songbirds. The results were published on March 12, 2015 in an open-access article in PeerJ. “The up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song-learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans”, says Dr. Irma Järvelä, the leader of the study. In contrast, listening to music down-regulated genes that are associated with neurodegeneration, referring to a neuroprotective role of music.

“The effect was only detectable in musically experienced participants, suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects,” researchers remark.
The findings give new information about the molecular genetic background of music perception and evolution, and may give further insights about the molecular mechanisms underlying music therapy.

The responsible researcher of the study is Chakravarthi Kanduri (M.Sc. in Bioinformatics) from the University of Helsinki. The study protocol was designed by Pirre Raijas and Associate Professor Irma Järvelä, University of Helsinki, with the help of Professor Harri Lähdesmäki, Aalto University.

[Press release] [PeerJ article]