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Musical Training in Youth Can Protect Brain in Old Age

Scientists have found that musical training in younger years can prevent a decay in speech listening skills in later life.

Canadian researchers discovered older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20 percent faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests. This benefit has already been observed in young people with musical training.

The findings are published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The inability to comprehend speech is a cognitive function that can diminish with age. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss.

Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system, which supports the ability to parse, sequence, and identify acoustic features of speech, weakens in later years.

Investigators hypothesize that starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14, and continuing intense training for up to a decade, can enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition.

The new study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.

“Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too,” said Gavin Bidelman, Ph.D., who led the study as a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute.

“In our study we were able to predict how well older people classify or identify speech using EEG imaging. We saw a brain-behavior response that was two to three times better in the older musicians compared to non-musicians peers.

“In other words, old musicians’ brains provide a much more detailed, clean, and accurate depiction of the speech signal, which is likely why they are much more sensitive and better at understanding speech.”

Bidelman received a GRAMMY Foundation research grant to conduct the study and partnered with senior scientist Claude Alain, Ph.D., assistant director of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and a leading authority in the study of age-related differences in auditory cortical activity.

The study supports earlier studies that have suggested musical training during youth provides both short- and long-term benefits.

The latest findings add evidence that musical training not only gives young developing brains a cognitive boost, but that the neural enhancements extend across the lifespan into old age when the brain needs it most to counteract cognitive decline.

The findings also highlight the importance of music instruction in schools and in rehabilitative programs for older adults.

In the study, 20 healthy older adults (aged 55-75), 10 musicians and 10 non-musicians, put on headphones in a controlled lab setting. Participants were then asked to identify random speech sounds.

Some of the sounds were single vowel sounds such as an “ooo” or an “ahhh,” others more involved including a mix of two sounds that posed a greater auditory processing challenge to categorize the speech sound correctly.

During the testing cycles, researchers recorded the neural activity of each participant using electroencephalography (EEG). Researchers use this technology to study how the brain makes sense of our complex acoustical environment and how aging impacts cognitive functions.

According to Bidelman and Alain’s published paper, the older musicians’ brain responses showed “more efficient and robust neurophysiological processing of speech at multiple tiers of auditory processing, paralleling enhancements reported in younger musicians.”

Article by RICK NAUERT PHD Senior News Editor,