Just 30 seconds of Mozart calms brain regions linked to seizures and epilepsy

HANOVER, N.H. — Listening to just 30 seconds of Mozart calms areas of the brain and can prevent seizures in people with medication-resistant epilepsy, a new study reveals.

Researchers from Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine say the “Sonata for Two Pianos” in D Major (K 448) may have the power to reduce the epilepsy-related electrical activity spikes in the brain. Patients who enjoyed this piece of classical music displayed substantial improvements in brain activity, the study finds.

The piece, written in 1781, first came to the fore of medical science in the early 1990s when a study discovered listening to the Mozart sonata led to an increase in spatial reasoning ability. This result, now called the Mozart Effect, continues to be a topic of study by medical researchers, including those studying epilepsy.

Which regions of the brain benefit from Mozart?

In this study, researchers used electroencephalograms on 16 adults with medication-resistant epilepsy as they listened to a series of 15 or 90-second clips — including the Mozart piece. Results show that listening to K 448, but not any other music clip, led to a 66.5 percent average reduction in the number of epilepsy-related electrical activity spikes throughout the brain.

Study authors add the greatest reductions appeared in the brain’s left and right frontal cortices. These are parts of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses. According to the CDC, about three million U.S. adults and nearly half a million children have epilepsy.

“We analyzed the musical structure of Mozart’s K448 and the electrical brain response, using both human experts and machine listening algorithms, to determine the effects on the brain of specific musical features. Participants listened to songs selected from a range of musical genres, with acoustic features matching Mozart K448, to replicate the Mozart effect with a more diverse music selection,” explains Michael Casey, PhD, a professor of music and of computer science at Dartmouth, in a university release.

“However, despite selecting genres to match participants’ preferred listening habits, so far only 40-Hz auditory gamma-band tones and Mozart’s piano sonata K448 were observed to be effective at reducing interictal epileptiform discharges.”

So what’s causing these changes in the brain?

“One explanation,” Casey adds, “is that the Mozart sonata has a relatively constant repeated sixteenth-note rhythm (around 128 beats per minute in the recording that we used) that can evoke neural entrainment. Another would be that the classical sonata form is engaging attentional and emotional circuits by setting up and then playing with musical expectations. For these reasons in our search for effective music medicine, we must factor in music-theoretic elements of the selections, such as: tempo, onset density, timbre, key, and musical form.”

Mozart wrote this sole sonata for two pianos at the age of 25 for Josepha von Auernhammer – one of his most promising students – who went on to become one of Austria’s leading female performing pianists and composers.

The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.

South West News Service writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.

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