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Musical Training May Bolster Brain Plasticity Across A Lifetime

MedicalResearch.com Interview with
Gavin M. Bidelman, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor Institute for Intelligent Systems
School of Communication Sciences & Disorders
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN 38105

MedicalResearch: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Bidelman: Musical training as been shown to enhance brain function and impact behavioral skills (e.g., speech and language functions) in younger adults. In the current study, we investigated whether or not these advantages extend to older brains, which are thought to be less “plastic” (i.e., less malleable to experience/training). Older adults also often experience reduced speech recognition abilities later in life so we wanted to see if musicianship can serve as an effective means to bolster speech listening skills that decline across the lifespan.

Main findings:

1) On average, older musicians were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds behaviorally than their nonmusician peers. Interestingly, this is similar to the benefit we have observed in young people with musical training.

2) We were able to predict how well people classify/identify speech via (EEG) brain activity in both groups. However, this brain-behavior correspondence was ~2-3x better in older musicians. 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 to speech behaviorally.

3) We compared neural responses generated from multiple levels of the auditory system and found that musicians had more coordination (significantly higher correlations) between different regions. This implies that the “musical brain” operates more in concert than in non-musicians.

All of these findings challenge conventional views that older brain’s are no longer plastic, are somehow noisier, and show poorer coordination across brain regions. In fact we show just the opposite. In older brains, musicianship does produce pervasive plasticity, provides cleaner (less noisy) representations of speech, and orchestrates more neural coordination.

MedicalResearch: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Bidelman: Our findings imply that robust neuroplasticity conferred by musical training is not restricted by age and may serve as an effective means to bolster speech listening skills that decline across the lifespan. Beyond social benefits of music engagement, it may also provide a stimulating form of “cognitive brain training” across the lifespan.

MedicalResearch: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Bidelman: This was a cross-sectional study examining musicians with long-term experience. A randomized training study in older adults would be useful in future work to assess if these benefits emerge with short-term music interventions. In some sense, we still need to know the “dosage” and “longevity” of these music-induced benefits.
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