A Link Found Between Musical Training And Executive Brain Function

Alan McStravick for www.redorbit.com – Your Universe online

Musical training and performance programs like Suzuki Strings have long been thought to be beneficial to the child student though little, if any, research was able to substantively back up that assertion. With research recently conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital, evidence now exists that shows just how beneficial early musical training can be in helping to determine an individual’s later academic success and prolonged executive brain functions through the remainder of their lives.

In the controlled study, the team employed the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal a possible biological link between formal musical training and a boost in brain power. Published online yesterday in the journal PLOS One, the results show how the fMRI of brain areas known to be associated with executive function were more active in musicians than in non-musicians. As formal musical training can be cost prohibitive, the study did make adjustments for socioeconomic factors affecting their study participants.

The reason executive function in the brain is important and was thus the focus of this study is because it is comprised of high-level cognitive processes which enable an individual to understand and retain information faster than someone with a diminished capacity for executive function. Additionally, executive function is responsible for helping to regulate behaviors, good decision making, problem solving, planning and adjusting to changing mental demands.

“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications,” says study senior investigator Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s. “While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.”

Previous study on this subject was able to draw a correlation between musical training and its relation to cognitive abilities. However, far fewer studies have looked at the effects of formal musical training and its effect on executive function. Those studies that did focus on executive function presented inconclusive or mixed results and were limited by a lack of objective brain measurements. Additional flaws of previous studies include having only looked at a few aspects of executive function, employing a poorly-defined definition of what actually constitutes musical training and control groups, and failing to take into account limiting socioeconomic factors.

Participants in the Boston Children’s Hospital study included 15 children who trained in music, all aged between 9 and 12. The definition of formal musical training for this study meant each participant had to have played their instrument for a minimum of two years while being concurrently enrolled in private music lessons. This participant group had, on average, played their instruments for 5.2 years and practiced 3.7 hours per week.

The control group for the musically trained children was comprised of 12 untrained children of the same age. Being untrained simply meant they had no formal training outside of possible basic introduction to music and instruments that may have been offered in a school setting.

An additional study cohort consisted of 15 professional adult musicians and 15 adult non-musicians.

The adult non-musicians, like the non-musician children, had no formal training in music other than possible basic music introduction that may have been presented in their early school setting.

To account for socioeconomic differences, the researchers made certain to match the musician and non-musician groups based on the education, job status and familial income of the parents (in the children’s groupings) or their own (in the adult cohorts). Additionally, the researchers matched the two groups based on IQ by subjecting all likely participants to a battery of cognitive tests. The children’s brains were also observed via fMRI during testing.

The results showed that both the adult musicians and the musically trained children presented enhanced performance during cognitive testing that related directly to several aspects of executive functioning. The fMRI results of the children also showed specific activation of areas located in the prefrontal cortex during a cognitive test that required them to switch between different mental tasks. Activity was noted in the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Each of these regions are known to be linked to executive function.

“Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or [the] elderly,” says Gaab. “Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilized as a therapeutic intervention tools for these children and adults.”

While increased executive function was recognized among the musician groups of both children and adults, the team conceded that it could not be determined if the musical training triggered an increase in executive function abilities or if those abilities, pre-existing in the individuals, attracted them to music and predisposed them to stick with their lessons. To answer this “chicken or the egg” question, the team hopes to conduct further long-term studies that will follow selected children over time, assigning them to musical training at random.

The study, supported by the Grammy Foundation, was primarily authored by Boston Children’s Hospital’s Jennifer Zuk, EDM. Co-investigators on the study were Christopher Benjamin, PhD and Arnold Kenyon of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience.