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Teaching children art could benefit long-term brain capacity

Toronto, July 7, 2016

By Kaitlyn Patterson

Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Disorders Clinic, believes educators should consider the arts equally important to science and math because activities such as sculpting, painting or playing music have positive, long-term effects on the brain’s capacity to withstand degenerative diseases.

Reserve capacity is the brain’s ability to resist symptoms of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

“When taught at a young age, music enhances the brain’s reserve capacity, which supports brain function and maintains intellectual levels later in life,” said Dr. Fornazzari. “Genes play a role in brain capacity, but people can add to this reserve through activities such as pursuing education, performing mentally stimulating jobs, living a healthy lifestyle and, of course, playing music.”

One of Dr. Fornazzari’s patients was a former concert pianist with severe Alzheimer’s disease. While studying her cognitive functions, he discovered that her memory of music extended beyond playing previously memorized pieces. She had retained her technique and could learn new music.

“After the fourth day, she was able to learn and recall new music and improved her rhythm, melody and performance each day,” said Dr. Fornazzari.

Dr. Fornazzari said forms of art, including painting and drawing, also help minimize symptoms of neurological diseases. Mary Hecht, another former patient of Dr. Fornazzari, had vascular dementia. Her condition made tasks like remembering words and reading a clock difficult. However, she was able to accurately draw her old friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, from her 40-year-old memories of him.

“What makes music different from other forms of art is that it activates the entire brain,” said Dr. Fornazzari. “Even during passive music listening, musicians’ brains are more active than non-musicians.”

The younger a child is when they start playing music and the longer they spend learning, the better, said Dr. Fornazzari. This allows musical techniques and skills to become engrained in their mind.

“While it’s ideal to study music at a young age, practising music can still help people with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Fornazzari. “Beyond building brain reserve capacity, music also helps regulate stress levels, reduces pain and affects the brain’s pleasure and reward system by releasing dopamine.”

Dr. Fornazzari and his team at the Memory Disorders Clinic of St. Michael’s are planning to better understand music’s role in brain reserve capacity by studying 10 musicians and 10 non-musicians with Alzheimer’s disease.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.