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Playing a musical instrument can cause fundamental changes in a young person's brain, shaping both how it functions and how it is physically structured, researchers say.
A trio of studies presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in San Diego, suggested that musical training can accomplish the following:
- Improve a person's ability to effectively process information from several senses at once,
- Affect the way a young person's brain develops if they begin playing music prior to age 7,
- Enhance connectivity between the parts of the brain associated with creativity and improvisation.
All these findings ultimately could lead to improved therapies for people with brain injuries or learning disabilities, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, said in a Monday afternoon news conference.
"Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain," said Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard. "Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain."
The first study, conducted by Canadian researchers, asked trained musicians and non-musicians to respond to sound and touch sensations at the same time.
Two sounds were delivered at the same time a person received one touch sensation, which was intended to create the perceptual illusion that the person actually had received two touch sensations.
Since musicians have to simultaneously work their instrument, read sheet music and listen to the tones they produce, the researchers predicted that they would be better able to sort out sound from touch.
This prediction proved correct. Non-musicians fell for the illusion, but musicians did not, researcher Julie Roy, of the University of Montreal, said during the news conference.
"Musicians are able to ignore the auditory stimuli and only report what they are feeling," Roy said, adding that this is solid evidence of an improved ability to process information from more than one sense at the same time.
The second study involved brain scans of 48 Chinese adults aged between 19 and 21, who had at least a year of musical training while growing up.
Researchers found that brain regions related to hearing and self-awareness appeared to be larger in people who began taking music lessons before age 7. Specifically, these areas tended to have a thicker cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain.
These findings seem to indicate that musical training can have a huge impact on the developing brain, since brain maturation tends to peak around age 7, said lead researcher Yunxin Wang, of the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University.
The third study found that brain circuitry can be reshaped by musical training.
Swedish researchers performed MRI scans of 39 pianists who were asked to tickle the ivories on a special 12-key piano keyboard while the scans took place.
Pianists who were more experienced in jazz improvisation showed higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain's frontal lobe while they improvised some music, said lead author Ana Pinho of the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm.
At the same time, they showed less activity in brain regions associated with executive functions such as planning and organizing, which could mean that trained improvisers are able to generate music with little conscious attention or thought, Pinho said.
Because the studies were presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The new findings all seem to indicate that training with a musical instrument can affect the brain in profound ways that could prove useful both in education and in therapy, Harvard's Schlaug said.
"Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience," he said. "Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure."
For more about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association.