Can music slow mental decline? Rice researchers aim to find out 

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations

David Ruth

Amy McCaig

Can music slow mental decline? Rice researchers aim to find out 

HOUSTON — (March 25, 2019) — Can music therapy slow the progression of degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia while promoting well-being? A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will fund a new lab at Rice University that will explore this possible new inroad in the fight against such disorders.

Music and the brain. Photo credit: 123rf.comPrincipal investigator Christopher Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology, and co-principal investigator Anthony Brandt, a professor of composition and theory, are recipients of a $150,000 grant to fund a NEA Research Lab, one of only four awarded this year. The grants are focused on generating new knowledge about the value and impact of the arts through transdisciplinary research.

The lab will assess the therapeutic effect of music on cognition and social and emotional well-being, with a specific focus on quantifying associated changes in the brain. A six-week course for older adults with mild cognitive impairment will combine musical exposure, creativity and performance. The investigators will look for changes in intelligence, neural flexibility, loneliness, social support and perceived psychological stress.

“We know that music, and other forms of art, have a powerful impact on people all around the world,” Fagundes said. “It is ubiquitous in every culture throughout history. Given the universal role music plays in the human experience, we surmised that it must promote positive changes in neurological, physiological and psychological health. We designed our research lab around this premise by intervening in a population of those with mild cognitive impairment, a growing population.”

“We’re going to image the subjects’ brains before and after the course to look for an increase in cross-talk between brain regions, and correlate that with their mental health and emotional well-being,” Brandt said. “Our hope is to show that creativity promotes brain plasticity and mental resilience as we age.”

The researchers will collaborate with Musiqa, an organization directed by Brandt that presents public and educational concerts throughout Houston and has won national awards for adventurous programming. It will oversee the curriculum of the six-week course, which will be taught by composer Karl Blench, a Shepherd School graduate.

To communicate their work to the public, the researchers will share their findings with the Houston Methodist Hospital’s Center for Performing Arts Medicine, Rice’s Office of STEM Engagement, the YMCA’s Active Older Adults program and the Houston Symphony. The researchers will also work closely with Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy to promote policies that support arts programs as therapies.

Individuals interested in the study may contact Fagundes at

For more information on the project, visit


For more information, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 713-348-6777 or

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Related materials:

Chris Fagundes bio:

Anthony Brandt bio:

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

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About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.