Music helps to build the brains of very premature babies

Source: University of Geneva

In Switzerland, as in most industrialized countries, nearly 1% of children are born “very prematurely”, i.e. before the 32nd week of pregnancy, which represents about 800 children yearly. While advances in neonatal medicine now give them a good chance of survival, these children are however at high risk of developing neuropsychological disorders. To help the brains of these fragile newborns develop as well as possible despite the stressful environment of intensive care, researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG), Switzerland, propose an original solution: music written especially for them. And the first results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the United States, are surprising: medical imaging reveals that the neural networks of premature infants who have listened to this music, and in particular a network involved in many sensory and cognitive functions, are developing much better.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the HUG welcomes each year 80 children born far too early – between 24 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, i.e. almost four months ahead of schedule for some of them. The vast majority will survive, but half will later develop neurodevelopmental disorders, including learning difficulties, attentional or emotional disorders. “At birth, these babies’ brains are still immature. Brain development must, therefore, continue in the intensive care unit, in an incubator, under very different conditions than if they were still in their mother’s womb,” explains Petra Hüppi, professor at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Head of the HUG Development and Growth Division, who directed this work. “Brain immaturity, combined with a disturbing sensory environment, explains why neural networks do not develop normally.”

A tailor-made music

The Geneva researchers started from a practical idea: since the neural deficits of premature babies are due, at least in part, to unexpected and stressful stimuli as well as to a lack of stimuli adapted to their condition, their environment should be enriched by introducing pleasant and structuring stimuli. As the hearing system is functional early on, music appeared to be a good candidate. But which music? “Luckily, we met the composer Andreas Vollenweider, who had already conducted musical projects with fragile populations and who showed great interest in creating music suitable for premature children,” says Petra Hüppi.

Lara Lordier, PhD in neurosciences and researcher at the HUG and UNIGE, unfolds the musical creation process. “It was important that these musical stimuli were related to the baby’s condition. We wanted to structure the day with pleasant stimuli at appropriate times: music to accompany their awakening, music to accompany their falling asleep, and music to interact during the awakening phases.” To choose instruments suitable for these very young patients, Andreas Vollenweider played many kinds of instruments to the babies, in the presence of a nurse specialized in developmental support care. “The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers’ flute (the punji),” recalls Lara Lordier. “Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music!” The composer thus wrote three sound environments of eight minutes each, with punji, harp and bells pieces.

More efficient brain functional connections through music

The study was conducted in a double-blind study, with a group of premature infants who listened to the music, a control group of premature infants, and a control group of full-term newborns to assess whether the brain development of premature infants who had listened to the music would be more similar to that of full-term babies. Scientists used functional MRI at rest on all three groups of children. Without music, premature babies generally had poorer functional connectivity between brain areas than full-term babies, confirming the negative effect of prematurity. “The most affected network is the salience network which detects information and evaluates its relevance at a specific time, and then makes the link with the other brain networks that must act. This network is essential, both for learning and performing cognitive tasks as well as in social relationships or emotional management,” says Lara Lordier.

In intensive care, children are overwhelmed by stimuli unrelated to their condition: doors open and close, alarms are triggered, etc. Unlike a full-term baby who, in utero, adjusts its rhythm to that of its mother, the premature baby in intensive care can hardly develop the link between the meaning of a stimulus in a specific context. On the other hand, the neural networks of children who heard Andreas Vollenweider’s music were significantly improved: the functional connectivity between the salience network and auditory, sensorimotor, frontal, thalamus and precuneus networks, was indeed increased, resulting in brain networks organisation more similar to that of full-term infants.

When children grow up

The first children enrolled in the project are now 6 years old, at which age cognitive problems begin to be detectable. Scientists will now meet again their young patients to conduct a full cognitive and socio-emotional assessment and observe whether the positive outcomes measured in their first weeks of life have been sustained.

Join us Tuesday 18th June for FREE CPD accredited Module 1 mental health and suicide awareness training

Who – Members of the community and volunteer’s

What – FREE mental health and suicide awareness training

When – Tuesday 18th June 2019

Where – The Well, Hospital Road, Retford, DN22 7BD

Why – to increase awareness of people in our communities and volunteers involved in community schemes about mental health and suicide prevention and to reduce stigma.

Learning outcomes:

  • Define the term mental health, using the mental health continuum
  • Recognise the signs of mental ill health and suicide risk
  • Explore the links between physical and mental health
  • Increase awareness of the impact of attitudes and beliefs that lead to stigma and discrimination around mental ill health and suicide
  • Understand the Five Ways to Wellbeing and Safe to Talk about Suicide
  • Increase confidence in having a conversation with someone in distress and supporting them to seek help
  • Understanding the wider impact of emotional distress on friends and family


For more information or to book a place call Let’s Talk Training on 0115 880 0281 or email


Alternatively you can register your interest on Eventbrite using the following link

Actions speak louder in the bathroom (in fact, anywhere)

Why drying your toes is such an important detail to attend to…

A blog by Pam Burrows .

C is for Compassion
How you treat yourself

When you’re in a hurry

When you’ve got a lot to do and not enough time, what gets missed?
Do you dry your toes properly?
Do you bother to find your favourite mug?
Do you prepare something nice to eat…or grab and run?

Why it matters

These things might seem like an effective way to gain a little extra time back, you know, for those really important things you’re trying to cram into your day…BUT…
Those really important things are most likely going to be for someone else’s benefit.
What are you missing out on as a result, and does it really benefit you in terms of time?


My early career in childcare taught me many things. One was ‘You can’t rush a toddler’. Whether it’s eating, drinking, washing, dressing or walking, the more you rush, the more they push back.
Imagine taking a little extra time and paying a little extra attention to soothe, encourage and be alongside that toddler. No guarantees now, but if any method was going to help rather than hinder, it would be the soothing, encouraging one.

What appeals to you?

A little Compassion goes a long way. Which of the following little acts of compassion appeals to you most?

  • Imagine getting out of the shower or bath and taking a little time and attention to properly dry between all your little nooks and crannies. Not necessarily because it’s essential, but because the message you’re sending yourself is one of value and care.
  • How about taking a moment to decide what you’d really like to eat rather than grabbing the quickest thing.
  • Or taking a moment before you get out of the car before you head into the next busy thing you’ve got to do.

What could be your choice of a little kindness to yourself?There might be something at the back of your mind, a particular daily activity that you’d enjoy taking a little more time and attention over.

Just a minute

And as is often the case, it doesn’t actually have to take a huge amount of time. It’s about the intention to apply a little compassion to yourself in the way that you probably do for others, all day long!
Some of these choices might not even take any extra time, they are about having the intention of showing yourself some compassion.

My toes

The toe drying thing was definitely one of mine, a few years back and I notice when I don’t bother is when I’m getting a little too busy and thinking the little things don’t matter.
When I do take the time, I feel nurtured, and that I can cope with what the day brings because I’m in a more calm, observant state.

A practical step

Mostly when I talk about the C of my CARE wellbeing model, I talk about not beating yourself up and being Kind in Your Mind. But we also need to remember that actions speak louder than words. Those little kindnesses you can choose to do for yourself could be just the ticket to reduce your stress, calm things down and little and give yourself the kind of nurturing you might have been waiting for. Wait no longer, show yourself a little nurturing.
Because you’re worth it 😉

Big love to you and your little nooks and crannies,

Pam x

PS The video this week is Red Flag number 26 from my Burnout Buster Book – those days when you just don’t seem to be ‘in the moment’ – see what you can do about it…

The world’s first mental health ambulance arrives in Sweden

Over 1,500 suicides and 15,000 suicide attempts are reported annually in Sweden. In order to tackle this, Stockholm’s care services have introduced the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PAM) – an ambulance dedicated only to mental health care. It’s the first of its kind in the world, essentially an emergency response therapy room that can travel at 70 miles per hour.

As it speeds across the city, PAM looks like the conventional ambulance. On the inside, however, comfortable seats have replaced stretchers, and the bright lights have been altered for a warmer glow.

The response team includes two mental health nurses and one paramedic. In Sweden, the police traditionally handle these emergency cases. By making trained professionals available for emergency response, the quality of care provided is improved. It has also minimised the stigmatization of patients with psychiatric problems.

In Stockholm, PAM responds to over 130 calls per month on average. The vast majority of these calls relate to suicidal risk.

Anki Björnsdotter works as a mental health nurse, and gave a small insight into working with PAM:

What is a typical kind of call you get?

We help people who are suicidal and people who suffer from severe mental illness. It can be someone who is manic and not aware of their own mental state, such as a person who needs to go to a hospital without realising they need to. Also, people who are psychotic and people suffering from schizophrenia who haven’t taken their medicine and are in distress.

It used to be the police who handled these kinds of calls. But just the presence of the police can easily cause a patient to feel like they’ve done something wrong. Mental illness is nothing criminal so it doesn’t make sense to be picked up by the police.

How do you handle these cases?

When we first arrive at the scene, we evaluate the situation. If it’s a suicide case, it can take some time before you reach a contact person or someone who’s able to calm the patient down. We talk to the person in order to make a call about whether we should bring the patient to the hospital, or give them a ride home.

For example, if we get a call about a person on a bridge about to commit suicide and things have cooled down by the time we arrive, we might consider the situation and decide that, in this particular case, the patient won’t try to commit suicide after all and won’t need to be hospitalised.

During its first year of operation, PAM was requested 1,580 times, and had 1,254 cases attended to. That’s an average of 4.3 requests and 3.4 cases per day. 1,036 individuals of all ages were attended to, and 96 of them had contact more than once. One third of all attended cases resulted in no further action after a psychiatric assessment and sometimes crisis intervention had been made on site.

It is a scheme that is widely believed in, offering the right response to such delicate emergencies. PAM plans to continue operating in Stockholm after a successful trial, according to Fredrik Bengtsson, Head of Mental Health Emergency at Sabbatsberg Hospital. “I can’t see any reason as to why the project shouldn’t continue,” Bengtsson told VICE Sweden. “It has been considered a huge success by police, nurses, healthcare officials, as well as by the patients.”

Currently, Stockholm is the only Swedish city to have taken such measures to reduce suicide rates. However, Because of its success, other regions – like Skåne, Örebro, Blekinge and Jönköping are all looking into the possibility of using PAM. In Gothenburg, they have already set up a scheme that takes mental health nurses to emergencies by car, again delivering the right type of care for patients suffering from poor mental health.

The world’s first mental health ambulance arrives in Sweden


Today, our wonderful colleague and friend Val, has left her Senior Therapist role at Harmless. 

Val has been working for Harmless since 2013, but joined our organisation as a volunteer before she started her counselling role.

Over the years, Val has helped countless number of people with their recovery, and for the many who met her, life got better thanks to her valuable support.

On her last day, The Harmless team presented Val with flowers, and a memory book which contained messages from colleagues and photos from her time with us.

From everyone at Harmless and The Tomorrow Project, we wish Val all the very best in the future. She knows that she will always be part of the Harmless family!

I had postnatal depression as a new father. Mental health checks for dads should be expanded

New and expectant fathers will be offered mental health assessments if their partner is suffering from depression or anxiety, NHS England recently announced.

The NHS described the plan as “radical” and a “landmark move”. While it is vital that fathers whose partners are suffering get support, the plan still falls far short of what new fathers need. I would know. I was diagnosed with postnatal depression after my son was born and under the proposed plans, my symptoms would still be missed by the NHS.

Postnatal depression is a non-psychotic depressive disorder that can occur after the birth of a child. Between 6-13 per cent of new mothers will suffer from postnatal depression, with symptoms including persistent sadness or low mood, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, and thoughts of suicide.

Postnatal depression in new mothers results in poorer mother-child attachmentshorter breastfeeding duration and poor child development. The cost to society is huge. In the UK, every case of maternal depression costs, on average, £74,000, with the bulk of this relating to the negative effects on the child.

Some people, including scientists, used to think that postnatal depression was mainly a result of hormonal changes post-birth, or experiences that are specific to women, including delivery complications or unsuccessful breastfeeding. But there is now wider recognition that postnatal depression can also affect new fathers. In fact, recent studies have suggested that between 8 and 11 per cent of new fathers suffer from postnatal depression.

And as with maternal postnatal depression, the condition can seriously impair father-child attachment and the nature of a father’s interactions with their child, and it can also increase behavioural and emotional difficulties in the child. Fathers with depression are also about 20 times more likely to consider suicide compared with non-depressed fathers.

Many factors are known to contribute to postnatal depression in new fathers. The most common is maternal postnatal depression. Fathers whose partners have postnatal depression are about two-and-a-half times more likely to have symptoms of depression six weeks after the birth of a child. This is why NHS England’s plan to screen fathers whose partner is suffering from mental health conditions is important and will mean many more men will receive the care they need.

But this focus still ignores new fathers, like me, whose partners do not have a pre-existing mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. Instead, a more holistic account of the mental health of new fathers would consider their previous history of mental illness and the psychological and social context of fatherhood. For example, men often report large discrepancies between the expectations and realities of childbirth in the postnatal period. And men who experience greater difficulties with childcare.

New fathers are also more likely than new mothers to return to work sooner and, in many parts of society, men are still expected to be the breadwinners. Yet new fathers are also expected to play an active role in childcare, and difficulties managing an early return to work with childcare responsibilities can contribute to symptoms of depression.

New fathers can also have difficulty developing an emotional bond with their child compared with mothers, which may increase feelings of helplessness.

But when new fathers get depressed, they are still less likely than new mothers to have their symptoms caught and are more likely to go untreated. In part, this may be because men are reluctant to disclose symptoms of mental ill health, especially if such disclosures are seen as inconsistent with ideals of masculinity. But it may also be because healthcare practitioners do not recognise depression in new fathers or provide opportunities for new fathers to raise concerns about their mental health.

In the UK, for example, the tradition of health visiting is heavily focused on mothers and children, and some health visitors are reluctant to address postnatal depression in men. As a result, fathers end up feeling overlooked following the birth of a child and their experiences rendered invisible.

The invisibility of depressive symptoms in new fathers is important because it often forces men to manage their symptoms on their own, leaving them frustrated when they are unable to do so. New fathers may also end up questioning the legitimacy of their depressive experiences and avoid or delay seeking help, as a result.

While the plans by NHS England are an important first step, there is a risk that many new fathers will continue to be let down through under-diagnosis or a lack of attention to the mental healthcare needs of new fathers. Instead, what is needed is routine screening of new fathers for depression and other mental health conditions, so that all new parents are treated equally. This, in turn, requires that healthcare practitioners who are most likely to meet new fathers have the appropriate education, training and time to engage with fathers too.

How to talk to your boss about stress

A little bit of work-related stress is normal.

But when it makes you dread going to work, that’s an issue. The same goes for when stress is taking over your thoughts. When it’s making your stomach churn. When every night you’re having nightmares about missing deadlines or showing up to work late.

That’s not healthy stress. That’s a serious problem that needs to be worked through.

Once you realise you’re experiencing an overload of stress, what can you actually do?

It’s easy to bury your head in the sand, prioritise relaxation at home, and just hope that things get better.

Then there’s the temptation to quit your job and run far, far away.

But if you love your job, neither option is the answer. Instead it’s time to have a proper chat with your boss, your manager, or HR about the levels of stress you’re feeling at work, and what they can do to make things better.

Here’s our advice on how to start the conversation.

Keep a stress diary

This is an easy way to track the extent of your stress, and work out exactly what’s triggering it. Is your stress worsened by interactions with certain colleagues? Pressure to meet tricky targets? Late nights? A commute at rush hour?

For a few weeks or so, note down your level of stress, your mood, and what happens during the day – for your own reference, but also as evidence you can use when talking to your manager.

Know your rights

While there’s no specific law about how workplaces have to deal with stress, employers are obligated by law to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their staff (thanks, Health and Safety at Work Act).

This means that your managers do have duties under law to take reasonable steps to ensure your health at work; including your mental health.

If you feel flexible working – such as a shift in your working hours or days working from home – would make a difference, know that you have a legal right to request it. Flexible working is not just for parents and carers, and as long as you’ve been working for the same employer for at least 26 weeks, your workplace is obligated to deal with your request in a ‘reasonable manner’.

That means they’ll need to assess the advantages and disadvantages of your request, hold a meeting to discuss flexible working, and offer an appeal process.

So if you do request flexible working, your manager is legally required to give it consideration.

There are also laws in place to protect you if you have a mental health issue that is worsened by stress.

‘If your mental health problem has a significant impact on your life, it could be considered a disability under the Equality Act,’ Emma Mamo, Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing, tells ‘This means you have a legal right to be treated fairly at work, and for an employer to make reasonable adjustments if they’re needed.

‘Reasonable adjustments are usually small inexpensive measures and can include things like changes to working hours, roles, responsibilities, break times, or working environment.’

Have a think about what would help you feel less stressed

Requests have to be reasonable, so you can’t go into a meeting asking for puppies at your desk and remote working if you know full well that these aren’t doable measures.

Using the stress diary you’ve been keeping (you did follow that first tip, right?), track what’s triggering your stress and have a think of solutions to lessen those triggers.

There are loads of options it’s worth bringing up.

You may want to try flexible working. Perhaps you’d like training to deal with new challenges. Maybe you need to work out a new way to communicate issues with your boss.

Have a ponder and write down a list of things that would make things better.

Be mindful of stress you’re piling on yourself

If your office has a working culture that expects you to stay late every day, that’s an issue that’s definitely worth bringing up.

But if you’re the type to stick around late every evening out of your own perfectionism, you need to address that.

When you’re going through your stress triggers and creating solutions, be aware that some triggers may be self-inflicted, and that some solutions will be things you need to do alone – such as going to bed at a reasonable time, taking your lunch break away from your desk, or refusing to get involved in petty gossip.

Schedule a chat with your boss

Arrange a meeting with your boss, putting in writing exactly what the chat will be about. Explain that you’re feeling stressed and that you’d like to discuss solutions.

Trying to catch your manager right before they go into a meeting will reduce the likelihood of getting a positive resolution, and a vague email for a meeting will only make them worry that you’re quitting.

Give them time to research what measure they’re able to provide so that your conversation can be as productive as possible.

Remind yourself of your value

‘Too many people experiencing poor mental health, such as stress, anxiety and depression, still feel they need to stay silent,’ says Emma Mamo.

‘This could be for a range of reasons including not feeling comfortable disclosing their mental health problem, worrying their employer will think they can’t do their job and not wanting to be treated differently.’

Too many of us feel like we’re not able to bring up stress and other mental health issues, worrying that we’ll be fired, or we’ll look weak or incapable.

Before you go into the meeting, remind yourself of all the brilliant stuff you do at work and the reasons you were hired. Remind yourself that you’re not being unreasonable and you’re not going to get fired for asking for some help. You’re great at your job and struggling with stress doesn’t take away from that.

Try a wellness action plan

If you have no idea where to start when it comes to making adjustments at work, it’s worth using a Wellness Action Plan, which you can download for free from Mind.

That’ll help you and your boss to feel comfortable with what’s going on, with an easy guide on actions to implement and what results you’re both looking for.

It’s a handy starting point that takes away everyone’s awkwardness if you’re new to the ‘I’m stressed, what now?’ conversation.

Remember that you’re making a difference for everyone, not just yourself

‘Mind’s latest workplace wellbeing index surveyed 44,000 employees and found almost half (48%) had experienced poor mental health, such as stress, low mood, and anxiety, while working at their current organisation,’ says Emma Malmo.

‘Of those respondents, only half chose to tell their employer about their difficulties (10,554).

‘The culture of your workplace is likely to have a massive impact on how comfortable you feel in coming forward. It’s a lot easier to speak up if others have paved the way.’

If you’re the first one to have that chat, it’ll feel scary. But by pushing through and having the conversation, you’ll make it loads easier for the next person who’s struggling.

Ten minutes of exercise a day improves memory

Researchers have shown that the brain’s ability to store memories improves after a short burst of exercise.

Just 10 minutes of light physical activity is enough to boost brain connectivity and help the brain to distinguish between similar memories, a new study suggests.

Scientists at the University of California studying brain activity found connectivity between parts of the brain responsible for memory formation and storage increased after a brief interval of light exercise – such as 10 minutes of slow walking, yoga or tai chi.

The findings could provide a simple and effective means of slowing down or staving off memory loss and cognitive decline in people who are elderly or have low levels of physical ability.

The scientists asked 36 healthy volunteers in their early 20s to do 10 minutes of light exercise – at 30% of their peak oxygen intake – before assessing their memory ability. The memory test was then repeated on the same volunteers without exercising.

The same experiment was repeated on 16 of the volunteers who had either undertaken the same kind of exercise or rested, with researchers scanning their brain to monitor activity. In the brains of those who had exercised they discovered enhanced communication between the hippocampus – a region important in memory storage – and the cortical brain regions, which are involved in vivid recollection of memories.

“The memory task really was quite challenging,” said Michael Yassa, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, and project co-leader. The participants were first shown pictures of objects from everyday life – ranging from broccoli to picnic baskets – and later tested on how well they remembered the images. “We used very tricky similar items to to see if they would remember whether it was this exact picnic basket versus that picnic basket,” he said.

The people who had exercised were better at separating or distinguishing between the different memories, say the scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“An evening stroll is sufficient to get some benefit,” said Yassa, adding that the frequency and exact amount of exercise will depend on the person’s age, level of mobility, potential disability and other lifestyle factors.

The scientists also kept track of the participants’ mood changes. “With exercise you do get an enhanced mood. The question is whether that was explaining the effect we got on the behaviour or the effect we got on the brain and it wasn’t,” said Yassa.

Michelle Voss, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, described the findings as “intriguing”. “The brain regions involved here are also the regions that are thought to play a big role in the deterioration of memory with ageing. […] It would be really exciting to see this type of experiment in older adults,” she said.

The authors of the paper are currently using the same method to look at the effects of light exercise on older people over extended periods of time.

“Our main goal is to try to develop an exercise prescription that can be used by older adults who might have disabilities or mobility impairments, but can still adopt a very simple exercise regimen and be able to, perhaps, stave off cognitive decline,” said Yassa.

Encouraged by the results, Yassa and his team have changed their habits in the lab. “I try to do walking meetings every now and then, and we try to get up every couple of hours and go for a nice 10-minute walk. Based on my experience, not only is the group more productive, but we’re happier,” he said.