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Concept: Building Cross-Cutting Research Network(s) To Promote Multidisciplinary Mechanistic Studies of Music and Health

Project Concept Review

Council Date: May 13, 2022

Program Director: Wen G. Chen, Ph.D.


Music has the remarkable ability to enhance child development, improve adult function and well-being, and optimize the quality of life during aging. Many studies have shown that music can also ameliorate the symptoms of a broad range of diseases and disorders that occur throughout the lifespan. Recent scientific breakthroughs, including the development of new technologies, are providing the community with opportunities to understand the mechanisms through which music acts, and to develop new music interventions for a variety of diseases, disorders, and conditions. 

In 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (KC), and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) formed a collaborative partnership (Sound Health) and organized a workshop, held in January 2017, to evaluate the state of basic and applied music research (Music and the Brain). In this meeting, a diverse panel of experts discussed three overlapping periods of life (childhood, adulthood, and aging) and made recommendations for enhancing research in each of these domains (NIH report). The group developed a set of recommendations intended to highlight research opportunities and promote rigorous research. These recommendations centered around four broad areas: 1) Basic and Mechanistic Research, 2) Translational and Clinical Research, 3) Methods and Outcomes, and 4) Capacity Building and Infrastructure.

In 2017, an NIH-wide Music and Health working group was formed to capitalize on these recommendations and promote their implementation. To address the first two goals of promoting basic and mechanistic research, NIH issued three related funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) in 2019 that fall into two categories. The first two FOAs (RFA-NS-19-008 and RFA-NS-19-009) supported R01 and R21 awards, respectively, that were intended to broadly support any research areas related to the fundamentals and application of music in health. The third FOA (RFA-AT-19-001) utilized a phased R61/R33 mechanism to support research on music and health geared toward music intervention. These RFAs were followed with three program announcements with special reviews (PAR-20-266PAR-21-100PAR-21-099) published in 2020 to continue NIH’s support for basic, mechanistic, translational, and clinical research on music and health. To tackle the recommendation on “methods and outcomes,” the NIH working group organized three workshops in 2021 focusing on “Laying the Foundation: Defining the Building Blocks of Music-Based Interventions,” “Assessing and Measuring Target Engagement—Mechanistic and Clinical Outcome Measures for Brain Disorders of Aging,” and “Relating Target Engagement to Clinical Benefit—Biomarkers for Brain Disorders of Aging,” respectively. This series of efforts is summarized in a manuscript, “NIH Music-Based Interventions Toolkit,” which is currently under review at Lancet Neurology.

Purpose of Proposed Initiative

This proposed initiative intends to address the last recommendation from the initial 2017 Music and the Brain workshop on capacity building and infrastructure, which specifically called for promoting networks and collaborative studies involving neuroscientists; music therapists; musicians; and biomedical, behavioral, or social scientists, supporting their training, and establishing evidence-based best practices. The initiative will support a collection of research networks on music and health, with each network focusing on a specific health or medical condition highly relevant to music-based interventions, such as pain, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and/or aging. Collectively, the research networks will develop compelling research frameworks to guide future clinical research on relevant topic areas effectively, use consistent terminology and taxonomy, and support interdisciplinary collaborations and pilot studies to test novel mechanistic hypotheses and develop strong mechanistic measures, outcomes, and biomarkers. The objectives of these research networks can be accomplished through meetings, workshops, and conferences, both virtual and in person, as well as collaborative discussions and exchanges through visiting scientist arrangements, as well as training opportunities. The networks will also fund pilot research projects that will fill unique gaps identified through these meetings and collaborative discussions to provide the necessary preliminary data needed for music and health investigators to compete for more substantial NIH grants through the existing music and health program announcements with special review (PARs) and other funding opportunities. Furthermore, the networks would sustain their scientific impact through publications of research framework, common terminologies, reviews, and other best practices, as well as other dissemination and outreach strategies. 

Priority Areas

The research priorities supported by this concept should address at least one topic under each of the following areas of research:

Research Area One: Music-Based Interventions

  1. Define and differentiate different types of music-based interventions (e.g., passive listening vs. active engagement, self-management vs. therapist-based, etc.)
  2. Identify and/or define various active components of music or music-based interventions (e.g., melodies, chords, rhythms, and special musical expression; or social interaction, expectation, attention, movement; etc.)

Research Area Two: Mechanisms and Biomarkers

  1. Explore innovative neural mechanistic insights (e.g., sensory, motor, cognitive, emotional/affective/reward, interoceptive systems) relevant to music and a specific health condition 
  2. Examine non-neural physiological systems and novel measures (e.g., impact on related non-neural organs, biochemical and molecular signals, epigenetic modifications, etc.) relevant to music or music-based interventions and a specific health condition
  3. Discover treatment response or predictive biomarkers or signatures/profiles for music-based intervention for a specific health condition

Research Area Three: Technologies, Tools, and Models

  1. Develop novel technologies to measure music-based interventions or monitor disease-related responses to music-based interventions
  2. Develop and test innovative animal models to study mechanisms and biomarkers of music-based interventions 
  3. Develop novel computational models to study the mechanisms of music or music intervention on a specific health condition