Childhood music lessons 'leave lasting brain boost'

Image caption,
Rehearsing may change the way the brain develops, scientists suspect

Learning a musical instrument as a child gives the brain a boost that lasts long into adult life, say scientists.

Adults who used to play an instrument, even if they have not done so in decades, have a faster brain response to speech sounds, research suggests.

The more years of practice during childhood, the faster the brain response was, the small study found.

The Journal of Neuroscience work looked at 44 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The volunteers in the study listened to a synthesised speech syllable, "da", while researchers measured electrical activity in the region of the brain that processes sound information - the auditory brainstem.

Despite none of the study participants having played an instrument in nearly 40 years, those who completed between four and 14 years of music training early in life had a faster response to the speech sound than those who had never been taught music.

The study took place at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois, US.

Lifelong skill

As people grow older, they often experience changes in the brain that compromise hearing. For instance, the brains of older adults show a slower response to fast-changing sounds, which is important for interpreting speech.

It could be that learning an instrument in childhood causes a fixed change in the brain that is retained throughout life.

Or, music classes somehow prepare the brain for future auditory learning, say the researchers.

Past work by the same team found younger adults were better listeners if they had been taught an instrument as a child.

Experts also believe musical training - with an emphasis on rhythmic skills - can exercise the auditory-system.

But these studies are all relatively small and cannot ascertain if it is definitely musical training that is causing the effect.

Arguably, children offered the opportunity to learn an instrument, which can be expensive, may come from more privileged backgrounds and this may have an influence.

Commenting on the study, Michael Kilgard from the University of Texas, who was not involved with the research, 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."

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