Annual Thewlis Lecture addresses aging, creativity and neuroscience

Northwestern University scientist conducts groundbreaking research into sound and the brain

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Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University.

KINGSTON, R.I., April 3, 2017 — The 2017 Malford Thewlis Lecture on Gerontology and Geriatrics at the University of Rhode Island will explore the surprising interconnections among aging, creative expression and brain science. Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University, will speak April 12 on “The Fine Art of Aging: Connecting Creativity and Neuroscience.”

“We tend to associate creativity with younger people,” said Phillip Clark, director of URI’s gerontology program, a main sponsor of the lecture, which is part of the University’s annual Aging and Health Week. “That’s not true. Art and creativity are extremely important as we get older.”

Kraus will speak at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall, Kingston Campus, with a reception beginning at 6 p.m. A live broadcast is available at livestream.com/universityofrhodeisland. Her talk will explore emerging research on aging, the impact of creativity on the brain — particularly regarding music and sound —and the neuroscience linking these elements.

Kraus, who holds the Hugh Knowles Chair at Northwestern, has conducted innovative research involving thousands of participants from birth to age 90 and has revealed that sound and our active engagement with it shape how we live. She is the founder of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Brainvolts, which investigates the biology of auditory learning and presents its findings in easy-to-understand multimedia formats.

“Sound is a powerful force in our lives, it is central to human communication,” Kraus said. “We don’t recognize how incredibly important sound is because it is invisible, but it has the ability to shape our brains for better or worse.”

Sound can harm our brains when it manifests as incessant moderate noise — the droning of a highway outside a classroom, the beeping of motorized vehicles in an airport — even when it is not loud enough to damage our ears, she noted. A great deal of hearing happens in the brain, so exposure to such noise can blunt auditory processes, Kraus explained.

Sound can aid brain development and resilience across the life span when we play music, sing or learn a new language, she said. “Music activates the cognitive, sensory-motor and reward centers of the brain. It is kind of a jackpot, engaging these centers thoroughly,” said Kraus, who hopes audience members leave her presentation thinking about sound in new ways.

While listening to music can be pleasurable, making music — or learning a new language — is what provides the benefits. “I tell people you are not going to get physically fit watching sports. Active engagement is what strengthens our neural passages,” said Kraus, an amateur musician.

She said research indicates those who play or have played an instrument, even in childhood, enjoy better cognition and memory as they age, stressing that it is never too late to take up an instrument.

While in Rhode Island, Kraus also will meet in Providence with members of the creative, scientific and health care communities to discuss the arts and aging.

The Thewlis lecture is one of three free events scheduled during Aging and Health Week. The award-winning documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” will be shown April 9 at 3 p.m. at the College of Pharmacy’s Earnest Mario Auditorium, Room 170. The film highlights the powerful impact of music on persons with dementia. A brief panel discussion follows the screening. The Intergenerational Community Event will be held on  April 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. in Atrium 1 in the Memorial Union. This event will bring together students, faculty, staff and older adults from the community to explore including music, writing, theater and photography in their lives.

The URI gerontology program, part of the College of Health Sciences/Academic Health Collaborative, launched the Thewlis lecture 11 years ago to recognize the contributions of Dr. Malford W. Thewlis, a former resident of Wakefield, pioneer in the field of geriatric medicine and a founder of the American Geriatrics Society in 1942. He wrote the landmark book “The Care of the Aged: Geriatrics” in 1919.Each year the lecture highlights an important element of aging.

 Aging and Health Week sponsors are: URI’s Program in Gerontology, Office of the Provost, College of Health Sciences/Academic Health Collaborative and the George and Anne Ryan Institute as well as the Rhode Island Geriatric Education Center.

For more information on these events visit the RIGEC website.