Older adults who took music lessons as
children but haven't actively played an instrument in decades have a faster
brain response to a speech sound than individuals who never played an
instrument, a study shows.
finding, reported in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests early musical training has a lasting, positive effect on how
the brain processes sound.
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. However, previous studies show such age-related declines
are not inevitable: recent studies of musicians suggest lifelong musical
training may offset these and other cognitive declines.
In the current study, Nina Kraus, PhD, and
others at North-Western University explored whether limited musical training
early in life is associated with changes in the way the brain responds to sound
decades later. They found that the more years study participants spent playing
instruments as a youth, the faster their brains responded to a speech sound.
"This study suggests the importance of
music education for children today and for healthy ageing decades from
now," Kraus said.
"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," she added. For the study, 44 healthy adults, between the ages of
55 - 76, listened to a synthesised speech syllable ("da") while
researchers measured electrical activity in the auditory brain stem. This region
of the brain processes sound and is a hub for cognitive, sensory and reward
Millions of neurons
The researchers discovered that, despite
none of the study participants having played an instrument in nearly 40 years,
the participants who completed between four and 14 years of music training early in life had
the fastest response to the speech sound (on the order of a millisecond faster
than those without music training).
"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," explained Michael Kilgard, PhD, who studies how the brain
processes sound at the University of Texas in Dallas.
"These findings confirm that the investments that we make in
our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later," he added.