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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Science on Tap: This is your brain on music

OHSU professor to headline lecture and concert that examines how music can help limit the effects of aging, diseases on the brain

By , Columbian staff writer
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Dr. Larry Sherman will speak at “Science on Tap: Music and the Aging Brain: a Discussion and Concert,” which will explore how music can help limit the effects of aging on the brain, and neurodegenerative diseases. Sherman, who is a musician and a professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, will host a discussion with singer and pianist Naomi LaViolette, who has been working with composer Steven Goodwin — who suffers from Alzheimer’s — to recollect his music.
Dr. Larry Sherman will speak at “Science on Tap: Music and the Aging Brain: a Discussion and Concert,” which will explore how music can help limit the effects of aging on the brain, and neurodegenerative diseases. Sherman, who is a musician and a professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, will host a discussion with singer and pianist Naomi LaViolette, who has been working with composer Steven Goodwin — who suffers from Alzheimer’s — to recollect his music. Contributed photo Photo Gallery

Music made teenagers twist their hips in the ’60s and scared parents across the country. Now it could help save your mind.

“Science on Tap: Music and the Aging Brain: a Discussion and Concert,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Kiggins Theatre presents an inside look at how listening to, performing and practicing music could help contain the effects of aging and diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s.

The event includes a lecture from Dr. Larry Sherman, a musician and professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University, as well as a discussion between Sherman and singer Naomi LaViolette, who has been working with composer Steven Goodwin — who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease — to recollect his music before it’s too late.

“A big part of the talk is going to be focusing on how performing music and engaging in music alter various processes in the brain and cells in the brain, and how that can actually delay the onset or the progression of certain diseases, possibly like Alzheimer’s,” said Sherman, who has been playing piano since he was 4.

The event combines a multimedia presentation with live music, discussions between LaViolette and Sherman, with LaViolette performing live songs from Debussy, Leonard Cohen, and The Beatles, and also original pieces by LaViolette and Goodwin. Sherman will perform, too, and there will be a camera placed above LaViolette during one of her songs, so the audience can see how much fine motor skill it takes to play the keys.

Advance tickets are $14, and tickets are $15 at the door.

Learning new pieces of music has the greatest effect on the brain, Sherman said.

“The key for people is to be engaged in the music, so if it’s music they like they’re going to be more interested in it,” Sherman said. “If you’re trying to perform music and get all those benefits I’ve mentioned, it should be something that’s challenging to you. If you already know how to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ like the back of your hand you’re not going to get benefits from that. But if you’ve been a classically trained musician and you want to try jazz, and things that you’ve never done before, that’s a huge challenge and the kind of thing that’s kind of going to push you and have these physical improvements.”

Sherman noted there’s evidence that learning new music can strengthen connections in the brain, and improve myelin, a covering around the nerve cells in brains. That can help you conduct impulses at higher speeds, and enhance communications between different areas in the brain. Sherman also mentioned that learning new music might be able to drive the generation of new nerve cells.

“It tells you that doing these physical activities can physically alter and improve, to some degree, the function of the brain,” Sherman said.

As data and research around music therapy becomes more valid and accepted, it should lead to helpful discoveries in the future, Sherman said. He cited former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as an example of music therapy’s power. Giffords was shot in the head in 2011. She survived the assassination attempt, but lost the ability to speak. With the help of melodies and rhythms, Giffords was able to train her brain to discover new pathways to speech, helping her to speak again. Sherman believes these examples of healing are just the beginning of what could come.

“The more we understand about this,” Sherman said, “the better we’ll be equipped to utilize music in different ways to help people.”

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Columbian staff writer