Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Playing music 'aids brain function'

Scientists say playing the piano in your youth can help your brain function in later years

Music lessons as a child can help the brain perform many decades later when processing sound, a study has shown.

Whether or not you continue playing, those endless scales on the piano pay dividends in middle and old age by honing your hearing, say scientists.

As people age, hearing is often compromised by changes in the brain. Older adults react more slowly to fast-changing sounds, which can undermine their ability to interpret speech.

The new research suggests this effect is lessened by learning a musical instrument in childhood.

Scientists who tested 44 volunteers aged 55 to 76 found even those who had not picked up an instrument for decades responded more quickly to a speech sound than individuals with no musical training.

The more years study participants spent playing instruments, the better their brains performed.

"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now," said lead researcher Dr Nina Kraus, from Northwestern University in Illinois.

"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 ageing adult."

Volunteers listened to a synthesised speech syllable - "da" - while scientists measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem which processes sound.

None of the participants had played an instrument in nearly 40 years. Yet those who completed between four and 14 years of music lessons early in life responded fastest to the speech sound.

The effect was small - in the order of a millisecond or so quicker than people with no musical training - but large enough to have an impact on everyday life, said the researchers, whose findings appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Commenting on the study, Dr Michael Kilgard, an expert on sound processing in the brain from the University of Texas at Dallas, 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."

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