Childhood Music Lessons Have Neural Benefit Decades Later

November 11, 2013

Older adults who took music lessons as children but haven't actively played an instrument in decades have a faster brain response to a speech sound than individuals who never played an instrument, new research shows.

The study, published in the November 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests early musical training has a lasting, positive effect on how the brain processes sound, the authors note.

Senior author Nina Kraus, PhD, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, commented: "Our findings suggest the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now. The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling, because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult."

… neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult. Dr. Nina Kraus

For the study, 44 healthy adults, aged 55 to 76, listened to a synthesized speech syllable ("da") while researchers measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem. They compared neural responses to speech in 3 groups who reported varying degrees of music training early in life.

Results showed that even though none of the study participants had played an instrument in nearly 40 years, the participants who completed 4 to 14 years of music training early in life had a faster response to the speech sound, on the order of about 1 millisecond.

Commenting on these findings in a press release issued by the Journal of Neuroscience, Michael Kilgard, PhD, who studies how the brain processes sound at the University of Texas at Dallas and was not involved in this study, said, "Being a millisecond faster may not seem like much, but the brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults.

"These findings confirm that the investments that we make in our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later," Dr. Kilgard added.

In the paper, the researchers point out that their findings have important consequences for education and social policy. They note that music education is at high risk for being cut from schools, which prioritize science, math, and reading.

They report that the neural enhancement seen in this study was for encoding consonant-vowel transitions in speech, which are especially vulnerable to the effects of age yet are important for everyday communication.

"These findings support current efforts to reintegrate arts education into schools by suggesting that music training in adolescence and young adulthood may carry meaningful biological benefits into older adulthood," they conclude.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Hugh Knowles Center, and Northwestern University.

J Neurosc i. 2013;33:17667-17674. Abstract


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