This Special Music Helped Preemie Babies’ Brains Develop
Move over, Baby Einstein: New research from Switzerland shows that listening to soothing music in the first weeks of life helps encourage brain development in preterm babies.
For the study, the scientists recruited a harpist and a new-age musician to compose three pieces of music.
Children who are born prematurely, between 24 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, are far more likely to survive today than they used to be—but because their brains are less developed at birth, they're still at high risk for learning difficulties and emotional disorders later in life.
Researchers in Geneva thought that the unfamiliar and stressful noises in neonatal intensive care units might be partially responsible. After all, a hospital ward filled with alarms, other infants crying, and adults bustling in and out is far more disruptive than the quiet in-utero environment the babies are used to. They decided to test whether listening to pleasant music could have a positive, counterbalancing effect on the babies' brain development.
Led by Dr. Petra Hüppi at the University of Geneva, the scientists recruited Swiss harpist and new-age musician Andreas Vollenweider (who has collaborated with the likes of Carly Simon, Bryan Adams, and Bobby McFerrin). Vollenweider developed three pieces of music specifically for the NICU babies, which were played for them five times per week. Each track was used for specific purposes: To help the baby wake up; to stimulate a baby who was already awake; and to help the baby fall back asleep.
When they reached an age equivalent to a full-term baby, the infants underwent an MRI. The researchers focused on connections within the salience network, which determines how relevant information is, and then processes and acts on it—crucial components of healthy social behavior and emotional regulation. The neural networks of preemies who had listened to Vollenweider's pieces were stronger than preterm babies who had not received the intervention, and were instead much more similar to full-term babies.
The first infants in the study are now 6 years old—the age when cognitive problems usually become diagnosable. Researchers plan to follow up with more cognitive and socio-emotional assessments, to determine whether the effects of the music intervention have lasted.
The first infants in the study are now 6 years old—the age when cognitive problems usually become diagnosable.
The scientists note in their paper that, while they saw strong results in the babies' primary auditory cortex and thalamus connections—suggesting that they had developed an ability to recognize and respond to familiar music—there was less reaction in the regions responsible for socioemotional processing. They hypothesize that more time spent listening to music during a NICU stay could improve those connections as well; but another study would be needed to know for sure.
Because this initial study had a fairly small sample size (only 20 preterm infants underwent the musical intervention, with another 19 studied as a control group), and they all listened to the same music for the same amount of time, it's still undetermined whether variations in the type and frequency of music would make a difference. Are Vollenweider's harps, bells, and punji the runaway favorite, or would other styles of music help, too? (Would "Baby Shark" help … or hurt?) There's also a chance that other types of repetitive sounds, like parents speaking or singing to their children, might have similar effects.
But the biggest question is still the one that the scientists plan to tackle next: Whether the intervention lasts as the children grow up. If it does, that's great news for any family with a preemie — and for the baby-sized headphone industry.
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene variant we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this variant.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.